On July 1, 2018 a new comprehensive pay equity law took effect in Massachusetts that seeks to eradicate the wage disparities between women and men working in the Commonwealth. See Mass. Gen. Laws c. 149, § 105A, as amended by St. 2016, c. 177, § 2. The new law, which amended an earlier version passed in 1945, is a comprehensive attempt to bring women’s wages to the same level as men’s. According to recent statistics, the average full-time working woman in Massachusetts makes only 84.3 % of the average full-time working man. In addition to making it easier for employees to make claims for unequal pay based on gender, the law also makes it unlawful for employers to prevent their employees from talking about their pay, and prohibits employers from asking about your pay history when you apply for a job.
To understand the background of this significant change in the law, it is necessary to go back to 1945, when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to enact a law prohibiting employers from paying men and women differently for comparable work. St. 1945, c. 584, § 3. The only exception provided in the law was for pay differences based on seniority. In 1963, the federal government passed a narrower version of the law, which required equal pay for men and women, but only if they were doing equal work, that is, work that required “equal skill, effort, and responsibility” and was “performed under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C.A. § 206(d). The federal law had four exceptions: (1) seniority; (2) merit; (3) quantity or quality of production; or (4) “any other factor other than sex.”
After 1963, inquiring minds wanted to know: What’s the difference between the federal law (equal pay for equal work) and the earlier Massachusetts law (equal pay for comparable work)? In the 1990s, a group of food service workers in the Everett Public Schools, with the support of a union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, decided to find out what “comparable” really meant. The food service workers, who were all women, claimed that they performed work that was comparable to the school janitors, who were all men, but were paid less. After a lengthy trial, a Superior Court judge found in favor of the food service workers. Applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge found that the food service workers and the janitors performed work that required comparable skill, effort, responsibility and was performed under comparable working conditions. The judge ordered the employer to pay the food service workers the same as the janitors.
The School Committee appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court, which reversed the lower court. The SJC in 1995 (and again in 1998) ruled that the judge had applied the wrong legal standard to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act. See Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 421 Mass. 482 (1995) and Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 427 Mass. 603 (1998). According to the SJC, after applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge should have applied a fifth test: Were the job duties of the positions being compared similar enough to make comparison practical? Janitors and food service workers have very different job duties, the SJC found, and the law was not intended to compare different types of jobs in this way.
Supporters of equal pay drafted legislation to overturn the result in Jancey, but it wasn’t until 2014 that their efforts came to fruition with the passage of An Act to Establish Pay Equity, which took effect at the beginning of this month. The law retains the standard of equal pay for comparable work, but it defines the standard in a way that removes the fifth test set out in Jancey and effectively overrules that case.
Under the new version of the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), nearly every employer in Massachusetts (except certain domestic and agricultural workers, and federal employees) must pay men and women the same in all aspects of wages and benefits if their jobs require comparable skill, effort and responsibility, and are performed under similar working conditions. There is no requirement that the difference in pay be intentional or the result of discriminatory animus; this is a strict liability standard. An aggrieved employee may file a complaint with the Attorney General or may go directly into Superior Court to challenge a violation of the law. The employee does not need to file a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to challenge an equal pay violation. If the employee succeeds in proving a violation of the law, she is entitled to: (1) the difference in pay going back a maximum of three years; (2) an equal amount in liquidated damages; and (3) reasonable attorneys fees and costs. A complaint must be filed within three years of an employer’s action creating the pay discrepancy or within three years of the employee’s most recent paycheck. NOTE: The employer cannot eliminate gender-based differences in pay by reducing anyone’s pay.
While the new law gives MEPA new life after the Jancey case effectively killed it, it also gives employers new defenses that didn’t exist in the previous law. For example, a difference in pay between men and women does not violate MEPA if it is made pursuant to any of the following reasons:
- a seniority system (but employee seniority can’t be affected by pregnancy or family and medical leave);
- a merit system;
- a system that rewards quality or quantity of production;
- the geographic location of the work (if based on legitimate regional differences);
- education, training or experience (if reasonably related to the job); or
- travel (if travel is a regular and necessary aspect of the job; commuting not included).
There is also an affirmative defense in the law for employers, who can successfully oppose a MEPA claim if they can show:
- They conducted a good faith, reasonable self-evaluation of their pay practices;
- The evaluation is reasonable in detail and scope;
- The evaluation was conducted within three years prior to the filing of the complaint; and
- The employer can show reasonable progress towards eliminating any gender-based wage differentials revealed by the evaluation.
In addition to toughening up MEPA, the new law also includes provisions regarding employee and employer discussions of pay and pay history. The law requires employers to allow their employees to discuss their pay with co-workers, or anyone else, for that matter. (The idea here is that allowing employers to gag their employees allows the perpetuation of discriminatory pay practices.) At the same time, the law prohibits employers from disclosing employee pay and salary information to others unless (1) the employee affirmatively consents or (2) the information is a public record, as with public employees.
Furthermore, the law attempts to cut down on the perpetuation of discriminatory practices by prohibiting employers from asking prospective employees about their past salary or salary history. There are exceptions here too:
- the employer can confirm prior wage history with former employers if the prospective employee voluntarily provides information about prior pay;
- the employer can ask a prospective employee his or her salary expectations for the new position, as long as it doesn’t ask where the expectation came from; and
- the employer can ask for prior pay information once it has made a job offer with a compensation package.
For more detailed information about the new law, see the Attorney General’s Overview and Frequently Asked Questions.
The passage of the new, improved MEPA proves that where there is significant opposition to a court interpretation of a law, the legislative process, while sometimes slow, can act to amend the law and effectively overrule the court. Although the neutrality of the court system and its ability to interpret the laws remain intact, the democratically-elected representatives of the people get the last word.