AUGUSTA — Lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that aims to address the pay gap between men and women by prohibiting employers from asking about a potential worker’s wage history before making a job offer.

The House and Senate both voted to send the bill to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk on National Equal Pay Day, the symbolic date used to illustrate the ongoing pay disparity between men and women doing the same job. Mills, a Democrat who is Maine’s first female governor, plans to sign the bill into law, according to her office.

Maine and federal laws already prohibit employers from paying a worker less than a similarly qualified colleague in the same position because of gender. But bill supporters on Tuesday said businesses can exacerbate gender-based pay inequality by asking about a new worker’s wage or salary history.

“If the salary for her next job is based on her first job, the woman’s employer may – with or without intention – perpetuate the wage gap,” said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the lead sponsor of L.D. 278. “In fact, this disparity will follow women and compound the wage disparity through their entire work lives.”

The final version of the bill would prohibit employers from asking about a prospect’s compensation history until after a job offer (including compensation) has been extended to the candidate. The bill creates some exemptions, such as federal or state laws that require disclosure or verification of compensation history. But businesses would also be prohibited from banning employees from disclosing their own wages or inquiring about co-workers’ wages.

While violations would only trigger fines of between $100 and $500, the mere act of asking about an applicant’s wage or salary history can be cited as evidence of “unlawful employment discrimination” in complaints filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she was paid less at two jobs despite being hired on the same day or within days of male counterparts doing the same job. Bellows said realizing that pay disparity “humiliated me and alienated me from workplaces I otherwise loved.”

A recent report from the National Partnership for Women & Families estimated that full-time women workers in Maine were paid 82 cents for every $1 paid to a man working full-time. Over the course of a year, that averages out to a pay difference of $8,858, according to the report.

The equal pay bill is one of several measures dealing with gender discrimination that are pending before the Legislature. Lawmakers are also considering a proposed amendment to the Maine Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on gender.

The bill, L.D. 278, was approved in the the House on a vote of 86-54 and the Senate on a vote of 22-11. Both votes fell largely along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

Opponents warned that the bill could interfere with employers’ ability to gauge an applicant’s past performance based on their salary history. They also cautioned against prohibiting companies from banning employees from talking about compensation levels with others.

Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, said that as a business owner, he often looked at compensation history because an employee whose starting and ending pay barely budged could indicate that he or she “may not have been a top performer” at their last job. Bickford said he always based compensation on performance but said also said allowing employees to know each others’ salaries can cause tensions in the workplace.

Another bill opponent, Republican Rep. Shelley Rudnicki of Fairfield, said women must be willing to demand equal pay for equal work.

“As a woman, as a strong woman, this isn’t about equal pay. It’s about doing your job, getting it done right, getting paid what you deserve and asking for what you deserve,” Rudnicki said. “As women, we need to ask for that. This is about small businesses . . . paying people what they need to work.”

 

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