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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Equal pay bill passes Washington House

FILE - In this June 30, 2017, file photo, representatives work on the House floor during discussion of a bill to fully fund education in Washington state at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – Washington workers would have more protection to ensure that they receive equal pay for equal work regardless of gender and couldn’t be fired for comparing paychecks under a bill that passed the House Wednesday.

A bipartisan coalition pushed the bill through the House for the fourth time in a year, sending it to the Senate, where it previously stalled.

Opponents of the proposal argued it would generate a flood of legal claims and noted that federal law already provides equal pay protections for women.

Although the news has been full of recent reports of women in high-profile positions being paid less than men, this bill is for average workers throughout the state “whose stories we will never hear,” Rep. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, the bill’s sponsor, said.

Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, said the bill was needed to “stand up against corporations that treat people as commodities.”

Part of the House debate revolved around the historic difference in pay between men and women. Senn and other supporters said on average a woman earns 79 cents compared to every $1 a man earns in a similar job, with African American women and Latinas earning less.

But Liz Pike, R-Camas, argued that college experts told the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee those figures don’t account for choices women make to have children, spend time with their families or care for aging parents. When that’s factored in, those experts said women make 97 cents for every $1 a man makes.

Men and women in similar jobs as far as difficulty and responsibility would get the same compensation under the proposed law, although an employer could make exceptions for seniority, merit or the quantity or quality of work produced. Workers couldn’t be forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement on wages as a condition of employment, and an employer couldn’t retaliate against workers for discussing their wages.

Workers who believe they are not receiving equal pay could file a complaint with the state Department of Labor and Industries or a lawsuit.

It would add to a “mountain of regulations” businesses face and generate lawsuits, Pike said. “It’s going to enrich the lawyers, probably from Seattle. So much for one Washington.”

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to strip the Labor and Industries complaint process from the bill and failed in other attempts to narrow it.

Some of those changes could be added in the Senate, Democrats said, providing a bill that could get even more support if it comes back. Chances of it passing the Senate are greater this year because control of that chamber has switched to Democrats.