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A Republican Senator Just Offered A Serious Idea For Combating The Gender Wage Gap

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

After years of Republicans standing in lockstep against a Democratic bill aimed at closing the gender wage gap, a Republican senator just introduced a bill that looks nearly identical to it.

On Tuesday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) introduced the Gender Advancement in Pay (GAP) Act, a bill aimed at gender wage discrimination. While the full details of the bill aren’t yet available, some of the main provisions have been made public: It would tell the country’s employers that they must give men and women equal pay for equal work, while also stipulating that they can still give out merit pay; it would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for discussing pay or deciding not to disclose their salary histories; and it would create civil penalties for employers who discriminate in pay based on gender.

“Men and women should be paid based on their experience and qualifications — regardless of their gender — but unfortunately, incidents of gender-based pay discrimination still exist,” Ayotte said in a press release. “The GAP Act strengthens our equal pay laws and gives employees the knowledge and tools they need to combat wage inequality.”

The bill’s elements look nearly identical to those in the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure backed by a number of Democrats in the House and Senate but unanimously blocked by Republicans multiple times. “It has some of the key provisions that the Paycheck Fairness Act has that are pretty important to addressing the pay gap,” said Jessica Milli, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

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An important one is the provision against salary secrecy. About half of Americans say that they are either banned or discouraged from talking about their pay with coworkers, despite the fact that they in theory have a legal right to do so. “This might be a huge reason why we have the pay gap to begin with,” Milli pointed out. “Workers just don’t know if they’re getting paid fairly or not.” In workplaces where pay is typically much more transparent, such as public sector jobs and unionized ones, the gender wage gap is much smaller. Ayotte’s bill, in addressing salary secrecy, “could be a huge thing,” Milli added.

As with the Paycheck Fairness Act, Ayotte’s bill also narrows the definition of what factors other than gender can be used to defend pay gaps. A justifiable excuse would have to be “a business-related factor other than sex, including but not limited to education, training, or experience.”

Ayotte made it clear that part of her intention in introducing the bill was to protect employers’ ability to award merit pay, something she also emphasized when she introduced an amendment in last year’s vote-o-rama session. But merit pay would also be protected in the Paycheck Fairness Act. “It actually lists a merit-based system as one of the justifications for having a pay discrepancy,” Milli noted. “There doesn’t really seem to be anything in the Paycheck Fairness Act that looks to me like it would limit employers’ ability to offer merit pay.”

Ayotte’s 2014 amendment included some other provisions that could have an impact. It would go after employers who force their employees to sign contracts or waivers saying that they won’t discuss pay at work. “It may be a little stronger in its anti-retaliation provision because it explicitly addresses written policies,” Ariane Hegewisch, study director at IWPR, said in an email. It would also incentivize states to collect and provide data on gender pay disparities, which no state appears to currently be doing.

Its prospects of getting passed might be slim. It so far has no co-sponsors and is given a 2 percent chance of passing by Govtrack.us. Most Republicans have said that while they support the idea of equal pay for equal work, the country already has enough laws on the books making pay discrimination illegal.

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But it may be another sign that Republicans are starting to join forces on some issues that impact women. Earlier this year, Ayotte and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) became the first Republicans ever to co-sponsor the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bill that would require workplace accommodations to help keep pregnant women on the job.

This piece has been updated to reflect additional information provided by Ayotte’s office. An earlier version stated her bill does not narrow the definition of a justifiable gender pay gap.