In the Legislature, lawmakers like us are held accountable for every vote we take. Some decisions are harder than others, and some votes more complicated. But for us, when it came down to equal pay for equal work, the vote was simple — it was about fairness.
All Mainers benefit from equal pay for equal work, and one law we passed this session brings us closer to making equal pay a reality. As cosponsors of this legislation and chair of the Legislature’s Labor Committee, we know this policy will make a difference for working families all across the state.
The new law aims to end employers’ practice of basing pay for a new hire on prior salary or wage history. It ensures that pay discrimination at one job won’t haunt Mainers for the rest of their career. It means that parents who take time off to care for their young children won’t be unfairly penalized when they rejoin the workforce. Instead, it promotes fair, market-rate wages that reflect the requirements of the job and the qualifications of the new hire.
With this new law, Maine joins 17 other states that have adopted similar measures, including Alabama, Colorado and most of our New England neighbors. More states are recognizing that there are real consequences when low pay follows people from job to job.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, one in four American women reported having earned less than their male peers for the same job. That is a significant portion of our population, and it only represents the women who know they’ve been paid less for the same work. Another part of the problem is that many women don’t learn that they’re being unfairly compensated until later, sometimes resulting in years of lost wages.
In Maine, according to the Maine Development Foundation’s Measures of Growth 2019, on average, women make 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. The immediate consequences of lost wages are obvious. Households with a female breadwinner have tighter monthly budgets, which means it’s harder for families to make ends meet, purchase a home, cover out-of-pocket health care costs, save for their child’s education and save for retirement.
The persistent disparity has lasting consequences not only for families but also for taxpayers. Women are about 80 percent more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts in their senior years. In a state with an increasingly aging population, we should be extremely concerned about this. Not only is it unfair, but it also increases pressure on state resources to take care of seniors living in poverty. By reducing the wage gap, we help Maine women improve their financial stability over their life spans and reduce the risk of poverty in later years.
In recent weeks, some of our colleagues who voted against the new equal pay law have taken to the opinion pages in an attempt to explain their vote. Their argument can be distilled to this: Maine women are doing just fine, so why vote for equal pay?
It’s true that conditions have improved for women in the 200 years that Maine has been a state. For starters, this year marked 100 years since we recognized women’s right to vote. In subsequent years, women fought for and gained much of what we take for granted today: the right to divorce, own property, plan our families, have bank accounts, keep a job while pregnant, pursue higher education, take out a loan and control our earnings, to name a few. These are all important indicators of progress, and they resulted from legislation.
However, just because the situation for Maine women and families has improved does not mean we stop fighting to reduce the wage gap. Pay discrimination has real consequences for real people. That is why this equal pay law is so important.
With all due respect to our colleague Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, we believe the equal pay bill introduced by Sen. Cathy Breen and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, on national Equal Pay Equity Day no less, marked an important victory in the continuing fight for equality. And it sent a simple and powerful message to young people all across this state, especially to women and girls: Your hard work must be compensated fairly, even if your past employer underpaid you.
Fairness isn’t complicated. As sponsors of this law and architects of this law, we are proud to stand by our vote.
Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, was the lead sponsor of LD 278. Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, is the Senate chair of the Labor and Housing Committee. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic; Sen. Linda Sanborn, D-Scarborough; and Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, cosponsored LD 278 and contributed to this column.