Workforce Gender Equality Bill Enacted in Washington State

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By Paul Shukovsky

Gender equality for employees in Washington state got a boost March 21 with the signing of legislation that addresses gender discrimination, pay secrecy policies, and retaliation against workers for talking about their pay.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed SSHB 1506, which broadens existing protections in the state’s Equal Pay Act by further forbidding employers from limiting or depriving an employee of career advancement opportunities on the basis of gender.

Inslee also signed SSB 5996, which would prohibit employers from requiring as a condition of employment that employees sign a nondisclosure agreement preventing them from discussing workplace sexual harassment or sexual assault.

The new law also forbids employers from requiring employees as a condition of employment to sign nondisclosure agreements about their wages. It prohibits retaliating against employees for talking about their wages or for asking about reasons for a lack of advancement.

Some Concerns Resolved

Sexual harassment issues were a focus of attention in the Legislature in the recently ended session. Inslee on March 21 also signed SB 6471, which orders the creation of a stakeholder work group to develop model policies to keep workplaces safe from sexual harassment.

While 5996 and 6471 passed unanimously in both chambers, 1506 passed the closely divided Legislature by a vote of 36-12 in the Senate March 6 and by a 70-28 vote in the House March 7 after a conference committee reconciled differences between the two bodies.

Some concerns raised with 1506 were resolved in the final version, Patrick Connor, Washington state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told Bloomberg Law March 20.

“We are relieved the conference committee resolved our greatest concern with this legislation, eliminating a ‘double jeopardy’ penalty provision that could have subjected a small business owner to both administrative and judicial sanctions, perhaps years apart, for the very same violation,” said Connor, who was the only person to testify in opposition to the bill in its final hearing.

Equity Bills Proliferate

A conference committee report resolved “this ‘double jeopardy’ threat of administrative and judicial action for the same violation” by specifying that filing a civil action under this chapter “shall terminate” processing of the administrative complaint by the Department of Labor and Industries director, Connor said in a March 20 email.

“Our disappointment in the final product was the refusal of the legislature to apply the new law statewide. Instead, the bill allows local jurisdictions, like the city of Seattle, to adopt ordinances that could differ from the new state standard,” Connor said. An Association of Washington Business executive expressed the same concern to Bloomberg Law for an earlier story on the bill.

There have been several gender equity bills moving through legislatures around the nation, Jackson Brainerd, a labor policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Bloomberg Law in a March 20 email.

“Some of the more notable recent equal pay enactments have targeted salary history inquiries and improved pay transparency laws, similar to Washington’s HB 1506; California, Delaware,Massachusetts, and Oregon have all passed measures along these lines within the last year and a half or so,” Brainerd said.

Colorado expanded equal pay protections in 2017 to employees of certain employers that were formerly exempt from labor laws ( H 1269) while Nevada created a program to encourage employers to examine their pay practices with regard to gender ( A 106), Brainerd said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at pshukovsky@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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