Hawaii already prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on their gender, but some legislators think more needs to be done to promote equal pay between men and women.

House Bill 1909 would revise the law to state more explicitly that pay rates must be equal unless the employer can prove that the wage difference is due to an established, bona fide seniority system or merit system.

It would change the legal requirement of “equal work” to “substantially similar work.”

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono joins Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for an event in Washington, D.C. calling for equal pay for women. The Hawaii Legislature is considering a bill to target the gender gap in the islands.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, left, joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for an event in Washington, D.C., last year calling for equal pay for women nationally. The Hawaii Legislature is considering a bill to target the gender gap in the islands.

U.S. Senate Democrats

It also targets “pay secrecy” by prohibiting discrimination and retaliation against employees who “disclose, discuss or inquire” about their own or co-workers’ wages as a way to exercise their rights under the law.

“Being able to share what your salaries are and not being penalized for that is a positive thing because, as other testimony reveals, wage secrecy is actually one way to keep the labor force in the dark as to what people are getting paid,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti.

The measure would go a step further by specifically prohibiting employers from telling their employees they can’t compare their wages to those of co-workers who do the same job at a different location.

Screening job applicants based on their history of wages and salaries would also be prohibited, and employers would also not be allowed to seek the salary history from a potential employee unless they are offered a job and given written authorization.

“We know that women are a part of the breadwinning structure of our families now and we know that this will help women achieve more economic independence.” — Rep. Della Au Belatti.

The measure would also require employer advertisements to include the minimum rate of pay and prohibit employers from paying less than what was advertised.

The bill has passed the House and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees, with no hearings scheduled yet.

Opponents of the bill say that it could create problems for employers by eliminating education and experience as factors to differentiate pay. They also say that gender wage gap statistics are not accurate as they do not take into account that more women work part-time.

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that women earned 78 percent as much as men for similar work nationwide. Hawaii’s wage gap is not as wide, women here make 83.3 percent as much as men, according to the legislation, but supporters say that the difference in pay still significantly affects working women and their families.

“We know that women are a part of the breadwinning structure of our families now and we know that this will help women achieve more economic independence,” said Belatti.

The Census Bureau said an overall increase in earnings from 2012 to 2013 suggests that more people are working full-time rather than part-time.

“I know that it’s challenging to make a case for pay discrimination, but simply making it easier for employees to sue employers doesn’t really solve any fundamental issues.” — Melissa Pavlicek, National Federation of Independent Business

In Hawaii, women make 85.8 cents for every dollar a Caucasian man makes, Asian-American women 74.2 cents, African-American women 72.4 cents and Latina women 65.8 cents, according to the bill.

“I think equal pay is critically important to women and to all employees and also I think we need to pass some sort of legislation to enable us to reduce the pay gap,” said Jeanne Ohta, co-chair of the Hawaii Democratic Women’s Caucus.

One opponent of the bill said it doesn’t do enough to preserve employers’ rights to base their pay levels on merit and experience.

“This bill crosses out that pay should be based on the quality and quantity of work and instead says that employers are allowed to differentiate pay if they have a seniority system that’s based on some established principles,” said Melissa Pavlicek, Hawaii state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

She said that while the NFIB supports equal pay for equal work, it does not support the bill because it has the potential to provide more pay to someone who is undeserving.

The “gender gap” can be misleading, according to a report from the CONSAD Research Corp. that contends the reasons behind the gap have not been fully explained.

It says the gap is partially due to a greater percentage of women working part-time.

Women leaving the workforce to take care of their families and preferring “family friendly” workplace policies could also be factors, according to the report.

“These are some factors that may relate to gender, but they aren’t gender discriminatory,” said Pavlicek.

She said that if an employee’s educational background and experience were to be considered determining factors for pay, NFIB could support the bill.

“I know that it’s challenging to make a case for pay discrimination, but simply making it easier for employees to sue employers doesn’t really solve any fundamental issues,” said Pavlicek. “It still has to be equal pay for equal work to be fair to all of the employees.”

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