Jeff Bezos has now become the first person to top Forbes' list of the world's richest people with more than $100 billion. Meanwhile, his company has reportedly been lobbying to limit efforts to address the gender pay gap in Washington State.
In Olympia, lobbyists and lawmakers have been negotiating over updates to Washington's pay equity law. A bill sponsored by Representative Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) would update Washington's Equal Pay Act for the first time since 1943. It would expand federal protections against policies that bar employees from talking to their coworkers about their salaries. It would also require bosses to offer equal training opportunities to people in comparable jobs regardless of their gender.
In negotiations over the bill, Amazon has fought hard to bar cities like Seattle from going farther than state law in efforts to close the gender and race pay gap, according to Senn.
"Microsoft doesn’t care about preemption, the Main Street Alliance doesn’t care," Senn told The Stranger. "It’s been led by Amazon."
The disagreement boils down to something called "preemption," or language in state legislation that stops cities from enacting their own competing or supplemental laws on the same issue. With minimum wage, for example, preemption could mean a state sets wages at $12 an hour but prevents localities from passing a $15 minimum wage. Progressives typically advocate against preemption language because local governments are often willing to go farther on issues like wages and labor protections than state legislature. But for businesses interests, preemption is a popular strategy for limiting cities' powers. It's a favorite strategy of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Ultimately, Amazon and other business lobbyists failed to change Senn's bill. After some back and forth, the final version of the bill does not include preemption language.
Amazon and its lobbyists did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, Senn believes the push indicates Amazon is worried about Seattle.
"We've seen Seattle take a number of steps," Senn continued. "[Seattle City Council Member] Teresa Mosqueda has been out front and I think they’re concerned she’ll continue movement."
In a January hearing, Association of Washington Business lobbyist Bob Battles told lawmakers, “You will regulate small business out of existence if you continue to request something different in every jurisdiction where they work." In an interview, Battles said allowing cities to go beyond state law calls into question whether negotiations in Olympia are happening in "good faith."
"If you want to change this bill let’s talk now [about] what you think is wrong," Battles said. Battles said he wouldn't speak for Amazon, but the company is a member of the AWB.
It remains unclear exactly what Amazon may be worried about. One possible next priority for Seattle in addressing the wage gap would be a ban on employers using workers' past salary to set their pay. (Basing employees' salaries off what they were paid at their last job can lock women and people of color into lower pay.) But Amazon claims it's already doing that. In January, the company instructed recruiters within the company to stop asking new hires about their salary history.
On the campaign trail, Mosequeda advocated for a city ban on asking about past pay and expanded protections against retaliation for employees who challenge their bosses about pay equity. In an interview, Mosqueda offered few specifics about what city policies she might propose beyond Senn's state bill.
"For businesses who are paying workers well, paying what they deserve, and paying equal pay for equal work, there’s nothing to be fearful of," Mosqueda said.
Mosqueda and two of her colleagues, Council Members Lisa Herbold and Lorena González, signed a letter this month saying, "It is critically important that every democratic pathway—whether at City Hall or the Legislature—remain open for women and other marginalized communities to fight for equal pay for equal work."