By Sarah Zimmerman
SPRINGFIELD — A plan to close the wage gap between men and women swept through the Illinois Legislature last year, but it met the veto of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Now, the measure is back — but with some competition.
Rep. Anna Moeller has introduced legislation mirroring last year’s bill that would forbid employers from asking for salary histories.
“If you are using prior wage information to base future wages on, you’re carrying that discrepancy throughout a woman’s lifespan,” said Moeller, an Elgin Democrat. “A woman has to work 10 years longer than a man to make the same wages over her career. This is one way to get at that pervasive wage gap.”
Another Democrat, Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant of Shorewood, introduced a competing plan that would remove fines for violators if they can show they’re making progress toward closing the gap. Her plan has support from the business community, but Moeller said it’s a step back from even existing law.
Supporters for both measures agreed that women and men still aren’t equally paid, even though workplace discrimination based on gender has been illegal under federal law for a half-century.
The Illinois Equal Pay Act took effect in 2003. But a 2017 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families shows that women in Illinois are paid 79 percent of what men make. The gap only worsens for women of color: black women earn 63 percent, while Hispanic and Latina women earn 48 percent.
Barring demands for salary histories is based on the idea that a woman might not get the salary she deserves based on education or experience if it is tied to a past job in which she was unfairly underpaid. Massachusetts, Oregon, Delaware, California, Puerto Rico and a handful of cities have all approved a ban on the question.
The Illinois Equal Pay Act requires men and women to be paid the same for similar work. Violators must pay the disputed difference in back-pay plus interest and could face a fine of up to $2,500. Moeller said her proposal strengthens that law by boosting fines to be up to $10,000. Employers can ask for salary histories if it is a matter of public record or if the applicant is a current employee applying for another position within the company.
Bertino-Tarrant voted for Moeller’s wage equity plan in the Senate last year. This year, she’s introduced a plan that she thinks can secure the Republican governor’s signature.
“My goal is to solve the problem,” said Bertino-Tarrant. “We want to make sure people are being paid based on their ability. I think I provide a more bipartisan solution.”
Her measure protects employers from lawsuits — or accompanying back-pay or fines — if they complete a self-evaluation plan of their pay practices and demonstrate they have made “progress” toward closing the pay gap. The state Department of Labor would determine progress.
The self-evaluation provision is included in the Massachusetts law, to which Rauner pointed in his veto message. It also represents the compromise sought last year on Moeller’s legislation by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, according to president and CEO Rob Karr. The Moeller fines would be “excessive,” he said, noting that only a small fraction of companies has been found in violation of the equal-pay law.
Moeller said that idea moves the state backward, undermining current law.
“If companies are not paying their female employees the same for equal work, they should be liable for that,” she said.