From the 2017 Womens March.
From the 2017 Women's March. HG

One of the ways bosses can maintain low pay and gender or racial pay gaps is prohibiting employees from talking about how much money they make. Talking about salaries can reveal that you're being paid less than a colleague with a comparable job, giving you a case to ask for more.

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In the legislative session that began today, Washington state lawmakers will have the chance to do something about bosses who block employees from trading salary info. Representative Tana Senn, a Democrat from Mercer Island, is sponsoring a bill to update Washington's ban on pay discrimination. The bill, which died in the Republican-controlled state senate last session, would expand federal protections against pay secrecy. Data from a 2010 survey shows that about half of workers report that discussing their pay is either discouraged or prohibited in their workplace.

With policies like that, "how would you know you’re not being paid equally?" Senn says.

Under the latest draft of law, employers could not prohibit discussions about salary, require employees to sign waivers saying they won't disclose their pay, or fire workers for talking about their wages. The bill would also replace language in current state law about discrimination based on "sex," "male," and "female" with language prohibiting discrimination based on gender.

While it's far from a silver bullet, doing away with pay secrecy is one of the latest trends in fighting the race and gender wage gap.

Federal law already offers some worker protections against pay secrecy, but includes significant exemptions like those for supervisors and agricultural workers. A handful of other states have passed measures to go beyond federal law.

Beyond pay secrecy, the Washington bill would also require employers to offer workers in comparable jobs the same training and other career advancement opportunities.

“You can’t give all the men the training, you can’t bring only men to the state fair for your industry,” Senn says. “We’re trying to look at not just the payment, but how do women and men advance. What are the things companies might be doing to keep women behind whether it’s intentional or unintentional.”

Senn's proposal would give workers the ability to sue employers in state court or seek enforcement from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. However, the department would first have to offer a "conference and conciliation" process between employers and employees.

At a House committee hearing in Olympia Monday, labor and women's advocates testified in support of the bill.

"Men who bargain and are assertive are viewed as natural leaders while women who do the same are seen as trouble makers," said Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute. Watkins said research shows 10 to 40 percent of the gender wage gap "cannot be described by any bonafide [business] factor" and is therefore the result of discrimination, whether unconscious or intentional.

Business groups raised concerns about whether workers would be able to pursue administrative enforcement through L&I and then later sue their employer for the same offense. Some also called for preemption, meaning cities and counties wouldn’t be able to enact laws that are stronger than the state law. “You will regulate small business out of existence if you continue to request something different in every jurisdiction where they work,” said Bob Battles, director of government affairs at the Association of Washington Business.

Lawmakers will discuss the bill again Tuesday in the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards at 1:30 pm.