By Lee Howard The Day, New London, Conn.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday he is taking a first shot at narrowing the pay gap between men and women in Connecticut by proposing a halt to "pay secrecy" -- the requirement by some employers that workers not disclose their compensation or inquire about the salaries of others.
Malloy said his legislative proposal would ban a practice that can impede workers from determining whether they are being discriminated against. His office cited one study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research that indicated half of workers nationally reported wage discussions were banned or frowned upon by their employers.
"This is a step towards ensuring equal pay for equal work, because equality on this issue is long overdue," Malloy said in a statement. "Pay secrecy practices ultimately encourage discrimination and perpetuate the gender wage gap."
The Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the state's largest group promoting business interests, did not have an immediate comment Thursday about the proposal, which came as a surprise to industry leaders.
"We'll watch it closely," said Meaghan MacDonald, CBIA's public relations manager.
Tony Sheridan, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said he was inclined to support any bill that increased pay equity, though he wasn't familiar with Malloy's specific proposal.
"Pay equity is an important national issue," Sheridan said. "How you go about making the correction ... is a whole other subject matter."
Jacques Parenteau, a leading employee-rights attorney with an office in New London, said laws targeting pay-secrecy requirements are intended to counteract what happened to Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. employee who sued the company after retirement when she discovered she had been underpaid for years compared with her male counterparts.
"It is difficult to say that these laws will result in a change in behavior where women ask men, and men disclose, how much they are being paid, but that is the thinking behind the laws," Parenteau said in an email.
"It is good public policy for exchanging information in the workplace," he added. "Workers have the right to discuss working conditions, including fairness of wages paid to men and women."
Parenteau added that in Connecticut today workers are protected by the First Amendment in their discussions of pay -- but only to the extent that they "are speaking about wages being paid to men and women generally in connection with possible discrimination or unequal pay, as a matter of public concern."
Malloy said his proposed bill, similar to ones enacted in 10 states, would not require anyone to disclose wages. Instead, he said, the law would discourage attempts by employers to stifle employees willing to compare notes on their pay -- presumably allowing them to determine if they are being underpaid.
"Women deserve the same pay for the same work -- and that's why we're standing up for real action on this issue," Malloy said. Malloy ordered a report issued in November 2013 by the Gender Wage Gap Task Force that found women in the state narrowing the earnings disparity with men incrementally over the years. Still, women in Connecticut were being paid significantly below men's wages -- 78 cents on the dollar -- according to a report last year.
"In the analysis we completed on this topic, we learned that frank and open discussions about wages in the workplace can help address the pay equity problem through increased awareness of the issue," said Catherine Smith, co-chair of the task force and commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. "This legislation retains a company's confidential information, while allowing a more transparent and informed conversation on the topic."
Sharon Palmer, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and co-chair of the task force, noted that women comprise about 47 percent of the workforce and are often key providers for their families. Pay fairness is important, she said, to ensuring a high quality of life in the state.
"Unfortunately, pay secrecy policies contribute greatly to the gender pay gap that continues to exist, and this legislation is an important step toward ending wage discrimination women encounter in the workplace," she said in a statement.
Christine Palm, spokeswoman for the state's Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, said while women would benefit the most from the pay secrecy proposal, men would benefit as well.
"Any couple trying to pay rent, or meet a mortgage payment or any other expense, would obviously have an easier time of it if their economic security got a boost from both parties' earning what they're worth," Palm wrote in an email to The Day.
She added that "while most of us could certainly improve" in the area of salary negotiations, it is incumbent upon corporations, governments and other organizations "to standardize their criteria" for how they pay their employees -- no matter their gender.
"A woman should be paid the same as a man with equal qualifications, experience and work ethic, period," Palm said.