When Congress gets back from recess, one of the first items on Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-DC) agenda will be salary histories.
She, along with co-sponsors Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), will introduce the first-ever bill to ban employers from asking about applicants’ prior pay before making an offer.
Norton has a long history of working to end the wage gap, from her time enforcing equal pay laws while chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Office to introducing and sponsoring equal pay legislation in Congress. Yet even she is somewhat new to the issue of salary histories and was inspired by a recent law that passed in Massachusetts banning their use.
“It was not instinctive to me to understand that asking an applicant for prior history could have a lifelong discriminatory affect,” she told ThinkProgress. But, she added, “All you need to do is think five seconds about it and you understand it.”
The issue is that women and people of color start out being paid less, a disparity that only compounds if their next job’s pay is based off of their prior pay. Women make less than men in their first jobs, a gap that is actually increasing, and then continue to earn less in virtually every occupation and even if they get more education.
“If this disparity can begin from the moment you go to your first job, and it follows you throughout your career, it will never be rectified and the wage gap itself will never be rectified,” Norton said. “It is a hidden form of discrimination that many employers may think is reasonable to ask and may not understand the discriminatory effect.”
“It is a hidden form of discrimination.”
There is always room, of course, for employers to ask questions of applicants to determine who to hire and who will be a good fit. But Norton doesn’t think this one lives up to that scrutiny. “What somebody earned before does not go to merit… It doesn’t tell you how that employee, for example, should be judged relative to other employees,” she said. She noted it may even be hampering men, who would also be protected under the new bill.
The idea of eliminating salary histories has quickly gained prominence. Massachusetts passed its bill in the beginning of August, and a few weeks later a similar bill was introduced in the New York City council. Now it’s poised for federal attention.
For Norton, it’s a matter of halting a pattern that’s keeping pay disparities in place. “People of color and women never break the chain of discrimination, because it’s built in,” she said.