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Panel urged to approve workplace protections

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 11, 2018, 11:49 a.m.

Layne Pavey poses for a photo in her home on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Pavey was a leading voice in persuading Spokane’s City Council to “ban the box” – preventing employers from asking about felony convictions on applications. Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, cited Spokane City’s move to “ban the box” during a Senate Labor and Commerce Committee meeting Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Layne Pavey poses for a photo in her home on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. Pavey was a leading voice in persuading Spokane’s City Council to “ban the box” – preventing employers from asking about felony convictions on applications. Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, cited Spokane City’s move to “ban the box” during a Senate Labor and Commerce Committee meeting Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature is considering multiple proposals that would enact tougher laws on equal pay and hiring practices.

Two bills considered Wednesday by the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee would provide new workplace protections against gender discrimination.

One would prohibit employers from keeping their employees from comparing their paychecks and change language in state law to be less gender specific, replacing specific references to men and women with gender-neutral words like employee or individual.

Pay equity is an economic issue that especially affects mothers, children and women of color, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said. When she began working on the issue three years, she was asked if pay inequality was still a problem.

“The answer to that question is, very much yes,” she said. “Pay inequality continues to be a pervasive problem in our society today.”

Seattle resident Matthew Carouchet told the committee he once worked with a female colleague who had the same job but was paid less.

“I was making $60,000 a year, and she was making $48,000,” he said. “She asked management why we were paid differently. The company reaction was swift. Both of us were written up in our permanent records.”

Another bill would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s previous wages until after offering a position.

Asking about an applicant’s previous pay rate can lead to unfair compensation, especially after many workers had to accept lower-paying jobs during the 2008 recession, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said.

“Someone that has more experience can be at the top end of the salary, somebody who has less experience can be at the low end of the salary. But it’s not the worker’s responsibility to set that pay rate for you,” she said.

Anna Finkbeiner, a high school senior, said the two bills would be an important step toward pay equity in Washington.

“I want to be paid the same as men when I do the same work,” she said. “Women, and especially women of color and moms, aren’t making equal pay for equal work.”

The committee also heard testimony on a bill that would bar employers from asking about criminal records on job applications.

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, cited the city of Spokane’s move to “ban the box,” and said many employers are removing questions from job applications about criminal history because they recognize the value of employees they could be missing out on.

“It gives people who have done their time a chance to reintegrate as quickly as possible into our economy,” she said.

Advocates also said the question on criminal history fails to distinguish between relatively minor infractions and serious offenses.

Bob Cooper, with the Washington Fair Chance Commission, said many employers won’t give applicants the opportunity they deserve if the box is checked.

“You encapsulate (the crime) in a tiny little box and then make a decision,” he said. “There are many, many businesses that keep that box and will make initial decisions and screen applications based on whether that box is checked or not.”