Aileen Rizo says that she loves being a consultant for the Fresno County Office of Education, where she teaches educators how to teach math to children. She’s got twenty years of experience, and two master’s degrees. But three years ago, Rizo, 41, the only full-time woman in her office, was shocked to learn that some of her male colleagues – including one with less experience and education – were being paid at least $10,000 more than she was.

Rizo’s employer told her that her salary was based on her previous earnings, so Rizo sued, and her case is pending in a U.S. District Court. This is not a new issue and back in 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Federal Equal Pay Act. This act barred employers from paying employees of one gender wages that are lower than those paid to the other gender, who are doing the same work. Although that should have resolved the matter fifty-three years ago, it did not.

4

The wage gap between men and women has narrowed considerably since 1963, but the difference is still substantial. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women in California earn only 84 cents for every dollar that men earn. Last year, the California State Legislature acted to close that pay gap and to make sure that in the future, people like Aileen Rizo do not become victims of gender-based wage discrimination in this state.

WHAT DOES CALIFORNIA’S NEW LAW DO?

Since it went into effect in January, employers in California are dealing with the new California Fair Pay Act, which addresses disparities in earnings between women and men. This new addition to California’s labor laws considerably expands the already existing prohibitions against gender-based wage discrimination that have been the law in California for decades. William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board who is now an emeritus professor at Stanford Law School, says the Fair Pay Act is “much more expansive than traditional employment discrimination law.”

3

The Fair Pay Act was passed last year with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats in both houses of the California State Legislature. Upon signing the Fair Pay Act in October, Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed, “Sixty-six years after passage of the California Equal Pay Act, many women still earn less money than men doing the same or similar work. This bill is another step toward closing the persistent wage gap between men and women.”

WHAT DOES THE FAIR PAY ACT REQUIRE?

The new law compels employers to pay women and men with “substantially similar positions” the same wage. Factors to be considered are the amount of skill required, effort expended, and responsibility assumed. The Fair Pay Act looks at more than just job titles. If a female “housekeeper” is doing work “substantially similar” to work performed by a male “janitor,” the Fair Pay Act compels employers to offer the same pay to both. In companies with several locations, an employee in one geographic region doing work substantially similar to an employee in a different geographic region must be paid the same wage.

2

The Fair Pay Act may not do much to break the “glass ceiling” and put more women in higher-paying jobs. Rather, it focuses on jobs that are generally undervalued. Nevertheless, the Fair Pay Act significantly broadens the standards for pay equity claims in California, and imposes a stronger burden of proof on employers to justify pay differences. The Fair Pay Act makes it easier for employees to file discrimination claims under the California Labor Code.

The Fair Pay Act also strengthens prohibitions against employer bans on employees’ disclosing their wages to one another, and it has also heightened employees’ awareness of their pay equity rights. The new law has received abundant publicity in California, so attorneys are expecting to see an increase in lawsuits alleging gender-based wage discrimination. If you believe that your employer is violating the California Fair Pay Act or any of your employment rights, you should consult at once with an experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney.

HOW CAN EMPLOYERS BE COMPLIANT?

Employers in California, if they haven’t done so already, may want to review the way they compensate their employees, and they may also want an employment attorney’s input and insights. Of course, over the last several decades, most employers have already eliminated potential wage equity conflicts and any discriminatory policy provisions, but a review focused on the Fair Pay Act is a smart precaution for California employers. It’s also vital for employers to make sure that their non-discriminatory policies are actually carried out in the company’s day-to-day operations.

1

To defeat an employee’s discrimination claim, an employer must prove that a wage difference is based on an established seniority or merit system, the quantity or quality of production, or another genuine reason entirely unrelated to gender. Employers should also heed one particular provision of the Fair Pay Act. Retaliation of any kind is absolutely forbidden against an employee who is asking about compensation, challenging a compensation policy or decision, or asking about wage amounts earned by co-workers. California employers should consider these proactive measures:

  • Create or improve protocols for handling complaints internally so that concerns can be addressed and solutions implemented without going to court.
  • Consider requiring mandatory arbitration agreements for all workers.
  • Require managers who make wage decisions to spell out why workers are paid what they are paid.
  • Train managers about the Fair Pay Act and make compliance an element of their evaluations.

Most employees in California enjoy substantial employment rights and work for employers who comply with state and federal employment laws. If, however, you face gender-based wage discrimination or any other illegal discrimination at your place of work, speak to a lawyer who routinely handles employment discrimination claims and who has considerable experience fighting for employment rights in California.

WHERE CAN YOU TURN FOR HELP?

If you face wage discrimination or any other type of illegal decimation at work because of your gender, race, religion, orientation, or disability – it needs to stop. Passage of the Fair Pay Act is a sign that Californians will no longer tolerate any type of discrimination whatsoever. If you are dealing with a discrimination issue at work, that issue needs to be resolved immediately, and you’ll need the help of a good employment rights lawyer. Don’t let anyone intimidate you, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, don’t hesitate to call and discuss your case and rights with an experienced San Francisco employment rights attorney.

By: Fred Geonetta

Frederick J. Geonetta is a graduate of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. His legal practice is entirely devoted to litigation. Mr. Geonetta has spent the past 25 years in private practice representing both plaintiffs and defendants who have been harmed or wronged by the actions of others or who have been falsely accused of causing harm to others. He represents clients across the U.S. and international clients who seek U.S. legal advice or representation.