House passes bill providing increased penalties for unequal pay
SALEM — The Oregon House of Representatives has passed a bill that increases potential civil penalties for paying women and minorities less than their counterparts who perform the same job.
While the state has laws barring discrimination, the wage gap between white men and women and minorities still persists, said Rep. Ann Lininger, D-Lake Oswego, the bill's chief sponsor.
"One of the things we need to do to make sure that people are not discriminated against based on pay is to strengthen the penalties for discrimination," Lininger said.
Lawmakers voted 36 to 24 to pass the bill Tuesday, March 28, after debating for two hours on the House floor. The legislation now proceeds to the Senate for consideration.
The bill makes exceptions for higher pay in certain circumstances, such as when an employee has seniority or produces demonstrably higher quality or quantity of work product.
The legislation bars employers from screening job applicants based on their salary history or to seek salary history from candidates. The proposal also spells out that an employee who has been discriminated against as a member of a protected class has a right to a jury trial and actual, compensatory and punitive damages.
Before passing the measure, legislators first considered a substitute bill offered on the floor by House Minority Leader Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte. The GOP-spearheaded minority report would have removed punitive penalties, provided a self-evaluation defense and made veterans one of the protected classes in the bill. Republicans won support from some Democrats, including Reps. Brian Clem of Salem and Deborah Boone of Cannon Beach.
The self-evaluation defense would have encouraged more compliance with the law and spurred fewer lawsuits, McLane said.
"Do you want lawsuits, or do you want compliance? Because you are going to choose today." he said.
The concept was that businesses that had made a good faith effort to address pay disparities by conducting an evaluation of salaries could use that as a defense if sued by an employee.
But Lininger and other lawmakers asserted the substitute bill would actually roll back protections that already exist in the law for those who are discriminated against, including for gender, disability or sexual orientation.
"It actually weakens penalties for those employers who have discriminated if they demonstrate that they have done a self-evaluation that satisfies this affirmative defense test," Lininger said.
She said she would encourage the Senate to consider adding veterans as a protected class in the bill.
Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, voted against Lininger's bill and for the substitute bill but said both would likely hurt the state's budget.
"The fact is for us to send this bill out and say no fiscal impact is a lie," Parrish said.
A study in 2014 by The Statesman Journal showed Oregon state government is one of the most egregious offenders of pay equity, even in state offices led by Democrats, Parrish noted.
"I would like to have that discussion, but we are sitting here in a $1.8 billion shortfall, and we're proposing to put forth legislation that will directly impact state and local governments in a time when we don't have dollars," she said.
One lawsuit with punitive damages could wipe out the budget of a small school district, Parrish said.
"Again, I'm not saying the conversation isn't important. As a woman and as an Arab woman, I have been paid less," she said.