Connecticut moves to lift veil of wage secrecy

By Danielle Brody

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To some, new legislation that allows employees to discuss wages in the workplace is a positive step toward reducing the gender wage gap. To others it’s an unnecessary mandate.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed the bill, which halts “pay secrecy” — a rule at some companies that prohibits workers from talking about their salaries.

“It’s a practice that ultimately perpetuates income discrimination and allows the gender wage gap to persist,” Malloy said in a press release. “Women deserve the same pay for the same work — it’s that simple.”

The legislation does not require employees or employers to disclose wages, but makes it illegal for companies to punish those who wish to do so. The bill was approved in the House of Representatives and in the Senate this month and awaits Malloy’s signature.

Malloy created a Gender Wage Gap Task Force in 2013 that said more than 60 percent of employees in the private sector were either prohibited or discouraged from discussing pay with their colleagues, citing a 2011 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The report also said full-time female workers earn an average 22 percent to 24 percent less than men.

“Put another way, on average, a woman in Connecticut earns only 75.8 to 78 cents for every dollar a man earns,” the report said.

The pay gap can narrow to about 5 percent to 10 percent when controlled for other factors like education, union membership and training.

Whether the legislation will help women, or if pay secrecy is a women’s issue at all, is debatable in the business and law communities.

Bonnie Stewart, vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said discrepancies in wages could have nothing to do with gender but could differ because of seniority, experience or specific roles. She said it’s difficult to compare compensation at a company.

The legislation could have an adverse affect for employees, Stewart said. For the most part, she said disgruntled employees will be the ones to ask about wages.

“It can give people a license to gossip and that is a problem,” Stewart said. “Most people don’t want other people talking about their wages in the workplace.”

Yet employment and civil rights lawyer Nina Pirrotti, a partner at New Haven-based Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Richardson, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti p.c. and the president of the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association, said the law could reverse the taboo of talking about salary and allow those discussions to happen, which could help women. She said if a woman suspects she is being paid less, in order to make a complaint, she needs to prove that males in comparable positions are earning more money.

“I see it as a very positive measure to maximize the chances that women will have the knowledge they need in order to be able to recognize that they have a claim and be in a position to pursue it,” Pirrotti said. “Plenty of employees have a good hunch that their male counterparts are making more, but a hunch is not good enough.”

In Pirrotti’s experience, she has seen discussing wages discouraged more than banned outright. She said this policy probably exists to prevent employees from knowing each others’ salaries and competitiveness that could ensue.

“It’s important to have that dialogue to figure it out,” Pirrotti said. “I think they don’t want the pot to be stirred.”

She said she does not foresee an immediate change in the workplace because of the law, but said it could have an intangible impact on the work atmosphere and could encourage companies to think twice before paying a woman less.

If an employee suspects he or she has an unfair wage discrepancy, the first step is to ask his or her counterparts, Pirrotti said.

“It’s difficult for anyone to do, but perhaps with legislation coming through it might make such a conversation more comfortable,” she said.

Stewart said she does not see this law doing any more to help women than the anti-discrimination laws that already exist.

“I do not believe it would improve the plight of women at all,” she said. “I think there are laws on the books that do that. I think this can create other problems not intended, easily seen by human resources professionals.”

Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said the bill is a “big win for women” and recognizes that employees have the right to voluntarily disclose their wages.

“Of course, it won’t eradicate gender-based wage discrimination, but it’s an important first step for our state,” Treiss said. “This will help women determine whether or not they’re being discriminated against because of their gender. And companies that pay women equally for equal work have nothing to lose or fear from this bill’s passage.”

Paul Timpanelli, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said while the wage gap exists and is unfair, this legislation is not the solution. Business owners should see that women have the same value as men, he said.

Tacking on more legal requirements to businesses is a burden that keeps them from prospering, Timpanelli said.

“Pay secrecy is not an issue,” he said. “If it is an issue within an individual business then the people that run that individual business should have the smarts to deal with it.”

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About the author

Danielle Brody
Danielle is the events manager for Westfair Communications. Previously, she was a reporter for the Fairfield and Westchester County Business Journals. She has written for the Journal News, the Scarsdale Inquirer and the Newark Post. Danielle is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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