Oklahoma women can’t afford wage discrimination. This bill aims to help. (Guest post: Alexandra Bohannon)
Alexandra Bohannon is an OK Policy Research Fellow. She is currently a second-year student in the Master of Public Administration program with a concentration in public policy at the University of Oklahoma. Alexandra works as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Carl Albert Congressional Studies and Research Center.
Women in Oklahoma are among the lowest wage earners in the US. On the whole, Oklahoma women can expect to earn $0.73 cents for every dollar paid to men, with an even wider gap for women of color. The gap exists across and within occupations, and even regardless of education level. It costs Oklahoma women employed full-time more than $6.2 billion combined in lost wages every year. This amounts to thousands of dollars that Oklahoma families don’t have to spend on food, rent, transportation, and other necessities, and it directly contributes to Oklahoma’s persistently disproportionate poverty rate for women and women-headed households. House Bill 2929, introduced by Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City) seeks to address this by enforcing equal pay for equal work in Oklahoma.
Why does Oklahoma need stronger equal pay enforcement?
Oklahoma already has a statute making gender-based wage discrimination illegal, enacted a year after the federal Equal Pay Act became law in 1963. However, the statute is largely ineffectual: while it designates employer violations of the statute a criminal offense, it contains no protections for workers who bring pay discrimination suits forward and no mechanism for workers whose employers are found guilty of gender-based wage discrimination to collect lost pay. In addition, the maximum fine is only $100 per employee, and according to the Oklahoma Department of Labor, there has “never been any revenue collected from this fine.” In short, it’s an ineffective law.
What would HB 2929’s equal pay enforcement reforms do?
House Bill 2929, drafted by Rep. Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City), seeks to make it stronger by outlawing pay secrecy, increasing fines and payments for violations, and incentivizing employee reporting and Department of Labor investigations.
- Outlawing pay secrecy: Pay secrecy is the practice of employer “rules, policies, and practices that prohibit workers from discussing or sharing information about their earnings.” This is already illegal under federal law. However, the law is weakly enforced. As a result, states are increasingly implementing their own pay secrecy bans, which research has linked to smaller gender pay gaps.
- Increasing fines and payments: HB2929 removes the misdemeanor status from employers found guilty of pay inequity and shifts it to a civil violation, removing the need to go through a criminal court proceeding. However, it also increases fines from $100 per employee to $200 per violation per pay period, meaning that years of underpaying women could add up to a hefty fine for guilty employers.
- Incentives to investigate: The last section of this bill creates incentives for both workers and the Department of Labor to report and investigate infractions. It gives employees the opportunity to collect back pay owed and allows the Labor Commissioner to keep one-quarter of that back pay to cover the costs of the investigation, creating a motivated investigation system.
The bottom line
“If the gender pay gap were closed, a woman in Oklahoma would have ’88 more weeks of food, nine more months of mortgage and utilities payments, 15 more months of rent, or 2,937 additional gallons of gas.’”
HB 2929 could have very real benefits for Oklahoma women and for workers in general. If the gender pay gap were closed, a woman in Oklahoma would have “88 more weeks of food, nine more months of mortgage and utilities payments, 15 more months of rent, or 2,937 additional gallons of gas.” Outlawing pay secrecy in the ten states that have done so has increased wages not only for women in those states, but for men as well.
Versions of HB 2929 have passed both the House and Senate, but final passage of reforms remains in doubt. The Senate version of the bill would would largely defang the measure by striking most of its enforcement mechanisms and instead do nothing but raise the never-before levied fine on employers. A conference committee restored the stronger House language, but this final version still needs to be approved by the full Legislature.
Despite strong public support for the measure, the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce recently came out against HB2929, sending a letter to lawmakers urging them to vote against it. Speaking to KFOR, Chamber members said they felt the bill section addressing pay secrecy was too onerous and that the bill would “interfere with that relationship employers can build with female employees.” Presumably this refers to the discomfort that would ensue if female employees found they were being paid less than their male counterparts. However, unequal pay harms women, families, and entire communities. Surely equal pay’s benefits far outweigh an awkward conversation with an employer.