Massachusetts Equal Pay Act: An Overview of the Attorney General Guidance

By Martha J. Zackin

On March 1, 2018, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office published guidance on the amendments to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), as described below.

By way of background, the amendments, signed into law in 2016 and effective July 1, 2018, seeks to ensure that men and women are paid equal wages for comparable work. In sum, MEPA broadens the definition of comparable work, describes the limited circumstances in which variations in pay may be permissible, and prohibits employers from restricting discussions of wages or from seeking salary history from applicants.  Importantly, MEPA provides employers with an affirmative defense against pay disparities if they have completed a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices and can show that they have made reasonable progress towards remedying pay differentials.

The Guidance, titled “An Act to Establish Pay Equity: Overview and Frequently Asked Questions,” seek to provide employers with clarification around key issues including: Read more

EEOC Publishes Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021

By Martha J. Zackin

EEOC recently published its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, in which it outlines the areas in which it intends to focus its strategic litigation and enforcement activities in the coming years.  Not surprisingly, the EEOC indicates that it intends to expend significant resources on understanding and protecting temporary employees and members of the gig workforce.

As described in the SEP, EEOC’s substantive priorities for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 are: Read more

Bello Welsh Partner Quoted in Law360 Article

Bello Welsh partner, Ken Bello, was quoted in an article about the new Massachusetts Pay Equity Law.  The article is posted on Law360, here, and below with permission:

How Mass. Employers Should Prep For New Pay Equity Law

By Brian Amaral

Law360, Boston (August 11, 2016, 4:40 PM ET) — Massachusetts’ sweeping new law against gender pay inequality doesn’t go into effect for another two years, but employment attorneys in the Bay State are already preparing for a new regulatory regime that experts say will likely result in broad revisions to hiring policies and an increase in lawsuits.

The Act to Establish Pay Equity, passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed on Aug. 1 by the state’s moderate Republican governor, takes aim at a stubborn pay gap: Women make up nearly half the workers in the commonwealth but earn only 82 percent of what men do, according to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Coalition, which includes the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Women’s Bar Association, among other groups.

The law broadens the definition of comparable work, narrows the acceptable reasons for pay disparities and explicitly permits class action suits. It also provides employers incentives to review their own policies, giving them an affirmative defense against claims of pay disparities by showing they’ve done a good-faith self-evaluation to understand and reasonably remedy gender pay gaps.

Along with a first-of-its-kind provision that prevents employers from asking prospective job candidates about their salary history, the new law is perhaps the most aggressive state law aimed at battling gender pay inequality in the nation, experts say.

Businesses have plenty of time to prepare: The law doesn’t go into effect until July 2018. But experts say it will have an immediate effect as employers start to prepare for its implementation, whether that happens through guidance from the attorney general or a trickle of court decisions.

“There’s going to be a lot of time for employers to decide, ‘Let’s look at our own pay practices,’” said Nina Kimball of Kimball Brousseau LLP, a plaintiff-side employment attorney who helped draft the law. “’Let’s see if we can take some proactive steps to change things.’”

Here are six things experts in the field say employment attorneys should do as the act goes into effect.

Ditch the Questions About Past Salaries

When the pay-equity law goes into effect in July 2018, Massachusetts will become the first state to outright ban employers from asking job candidates about their salary history. So some employers will have to change old habits, tear up job application forms and adjust their websites accordingly.

“This is a totally new type of tool that can help end the wage gap,” said Kimball. “If you’ve got prior discrimination in wages, asking about your salary history can bring it into your new job.”

Workers will still be allowed to volunteer that information, and employers will still be able to ask how much a potential employee is looking for, but that’s the extent of the wiggle room: When the law goes into effect, employers will have to stop asking.

Laurie Rubin, an employment attorney for Prince Lobel & Tye LLP, said it might be a good idea for employers to ditch the salary-ask question right away, even though it’s not banned for another two years. If employees after 2018 have a pay gap as a result of the practice of asking for salaries, the employers will be in noncompliance, Rubin said.

“They need to stop, I would say now, basing wages based on prior earnings,” Rubin said. “It’s only going to become a problem down the road.”

Take a Hard Look — And a Deep Breath

Another thing employers will have to start thinking about soon is the new affirmative defense in the bill. If faced with a pay-disparity or discrimination suit, an employer’s best shot might be to argue at the summary judgment stage that it has reviewed its salary practices in good faith and taken steps to address disparities.

If an employer has made a good-faith self-evaluation and can show reasonable progress toward eliminating gender-based wage differentials for comparable work, it can use that as an affirmative defense for three years.

“I do believe that will be a key element for employers to implement,” said Kenneth Bello of Bello Welsh LLP, who represents employers. “However, I would not be rushing to do that at this juncture. I would first be looking at, and thinking through, what should the elements of that self-evaluation be?”

Bello’s advice before diving into a study: Tread lightly.

“My first advice to clients has been and remains, ‘Take a deep breath,’” Bello said. “The law does not take effect until July 1, 2018. This provides a substantial amount of time for a company to think through and prepare for, first, how best to comply with the law, and second, to be able to defend itself in the event of a challenge.”

Attorney General Maura Healey, a vocal backer of the law, has been tasked with developing regulations on what those reviews will look like.

“The spirit of the new law requires that employers take a long, hard look at what is really going on in the workplace to uncover any gender issues that may exist, and to take affirmative steps to effectuate positive change,” said Lori Jodoin, the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association and an attorney with plaintiff-side firm Rodgers Powers & Schwartz LLP. Rubin, of Prince Lobel, said that employers might want to consider conducting a pay disparity study with counsel to allow attorney-client privilege to shield the study from forced disclosure.

Lift Rules on Salary Secrecy

Under the law, employers will also not be able to prevent their employees from discussing their own salaries among each other, or asking one another how much they make. An employee can decline to reveal that information, and companies won’t be forced to reveal it.

But being able to ask is an important step to increase transparency, experts say. The new provision follows a trend around the country.

“Increasing pay transparency may help unearth more pay disparities in the workplace,” said Jodoin. “The revised statute encourages people to talk openly about what they earn, to consider whether their workplace is fair and equal, and to take affirmative steps to address inequality without fear of retaliation.”

Get Ready for More Lawsuits

Many bills passed by the Massachusetts Legislature prompt false predictions of an increase in lawsuits, said Bello of Bello Welsh. This one is different.

The law has several built-in incentives to encourage lawsuits, one of which is an explicit provision allowing class action lawsuits. The law allows for double damages and recovery of attorneys’ fees for the successful party.

It also extends the statute of limitations from one year to three years, and makes explicit that each paycheck that is unlawfully unequal is a new act of discrimination, rather than just the act of first setting the salary.

“I believe that come 2018 and beyond, there will be substantial litigation around multiple aspects of this law,” Bello said, adding: “Litigation of these cases will be enormously expensive as it will be factually intense, and the more fact-intensive a case is, the more difficult it is for an employer to get summary judgment.”

Except for the affirmative defense mentioned above, the cases probably won’t be resolved on summary judgment.

He added: “I do not know any attorney — management- or employee-oriented — who disagrees with the concept or the goal of the pay equity law. The issue is not the concept, but the means to achieve this goal. The pay equity law has incredible uncertainty in terms of its ultimate scope, and the costs of defending likely litigation will be enormous.”

Kimball, of Kimball & Brousseau, said: “I absolutely do believe that it will be used more, but I think it can also be used by employers to be proactive about instituting practices that are themselves going to help.”

Get Familiar With ‘Comparable’ Work

If it does come, the wave of litigation is still a few years away, leaving enough time to get familiar with what the law means by “comparable” work. Court decisions and policy guidance from the attorney general should help decide some of the operative terms.

Employers and attorneys should brush up on what the law says right away. The new law says that absent some exceptions, employers can’t pay any person less than employees of a different gender for comparable work, which is defined as “substantially similar in that it requires substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and is performed under similar working conditions.”

Massachusetts has long barred employers from paying women less than men for comparable work — indeed, in the mid-1940s, it became the first state in the nation to pass a gender pay equality law, advocates say. But the way that case law had shaped the old statute, the law required courts to look first at whether two jobs shared “important common characteristics” before even answering whether it required a substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility, said Rubin of Prince Lobel.

The new law “uses a broader view,” Rubin said. “It rejects the earlier interpretation, which also required you to look at content. It’s sort of rejecting that approach and taking a broader approach.”

Bello is advising clients to do a related or even separate review of their practices beyond just the affirmative defense that the law allows for. “All of this starts with a review and analysis of what a company’s current compensation picture looks like now, particularly for positions that have the same title or substantially perform the same functions, even if they have different titles,” said Bello. “Ultimately, companies will be well-served by having documentation clearly reflecting why a compensation decision was made. When and if there was a challenge, an employer can say, ‘You want to know why Mary got more than Bob or Bob got more than Mary? Here is the memo.’”

But Bello added a note of caution: “That said, documentation can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. If it’s done well — and accurately — it’s extraordinarily helpful. If it’s done poorly, then it is more harmful than no documentation.”

And Forget ‘Any Other Factor’

While federal law allows employers to vary salaries based on “any other factor” besides gender, this one does not.

Employers are given explicit ways to vary salaries, narrowed to just six factors: seniority — without taking into account pregnancy or other family leave; a merit system; a system that measures quantity or quality of production, sales or revenue; the geographic

Massachusetts Legislature Passes An Act to Establish Pay Equity

On July 23, Massachusetts lawmakers unanimously approved An Act to Establish Pay Equity (the “Bill”), which seeks to ensure that men and women are paid equally for comparable work. Variations in pay must be based on legitimate reasons, as enumerated in the Bill. If Governor Baker signs the Bill into law, which he is expected to do, it will be effective in 2018, on either January or July 1.

Importantly under the Bill, an employer that has both completed a good faith, self-evaluation of its pay practices and can demonstrate that reasonable progress has been made towards eliminating compensation differentials based on gender for comparable work in accordance with that evaluation shall have an affirmative defense against claims. The self-evaluation, which shall not be admissible in any proceeding as evidence of a violation that occurred prior to the date the self-evaluation was completed or within six months thereafter, may be of the employer’s own design.

We will be working with clients on how to develop a “best practices” self-evaluation. This is new and uncharted waters for Massachusetts employers, and how best to design and implement a self-evaluation needs to be carefully considered and effectively implemented. As there is substantial time for this to occur, we do not recommend that employers rush to do the self-evaluation, but instead to take the time first to develop   “plan of action” of how best to evaluate current pay structures generally and how those structures are applied to employees, and then to determine what is the best form and scope of a self-evaluation. We also recommend that this be done with legal counsel, not only in order to get appropriate legal advice and counsel, but also to be able to do so in a manner that is subject to the attorney-client privilege.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be developing our own suggested best practices and working with clients as they proceed down this path.
In the meantime, we invite our clients to call any of our attorneys with any questions about this new law.

Massachusetts: An Act to Establish Pay Equity

On January 28, the Massachusetts Senate passed S. 2119, titled “An Act to Establish Pay Equity” (the “Proposed Law”).   Touted by one of the Act’s co-sponsors as a way to “further close the wage gap between male and female workers in the Commonwealth,” the Proposed Law is claimed to ensure equal pay for comparable work by “establishing pay transparency and requiring fairness in hiring practices.” If enacted, the law virtually assures that there will be new litigation battles fought as employers defend against single plaintiff, class and collective actions asserting unlawful pay disparity. Beyond expensive litigation, another unfortunate consequence of the Proposed Law may be that many employers will assess and reassess whether it makes sense to continue to do business in Massachusetts.

Key provisions of the Proposed Law include:
•    Makes unlawful any disparity in the payment of wages (including benefits and other compensation) between different genders for “comparable work”, which is defined as work that is “substantially similar” in that it requires “substantially similar” skill, effort and responsibility, and is performed under “similar” working conditions. “Working conditions” is defined to include the “circumstances customarily taken into consideration in setting salary or wages, [such as] reasonable shift differentials, physical surroundings and hazards encountered by employees performing a job.” The Proposed Law provides no definition or further guidance as to what is meant by “substantially similar,” meaning that any such determination could only be made following an intensive and individualized factually inquiry in the context of litigated cases. Because of this, these cases will be extraordinarily expensive to defend.

•    Provides that employers can pay wages (including benefits and other compensation) that are different for comparable work if based upon (1) a “bona fide” seniority system; (2) a “bona fide” merit system[1]; (3) a “bona fide” system that measures quantity or quality of production or sales; (4) the geographic location in which a job is performed; (5) education, training, or experience, to the extent such factors are “reasonably related” to the particular job in question and “consistent with business necessity;” or (6) travel, if travel is a regular and necessary condition of the job. While some of these factors can be objectively measured (e.g., sales production), none of these factors permit differentials based on real workplace differentials influenced by qualitative performance and market differentials. In an economy that is driven by industries such as biotechnology (pharma and device), high technology, education and health care, many of these “exceptions” will have no practical application. As with the definition of comparable work, the one certainty is that there will be time consuming and expensive litigation over what these terms actually mean and their application to specific circumstances.

•    The Proposed Law requires pay equity for all compensation and benefits – it expressly provides that it covers “wages, including benefits or other compensation. This presumably includes bonuses, stock options or other equity awards, or any other economic benefit. This will have enormous impact for employers that attract new employees and/or reward top performers with periodic equity awards.

•    Provides that an aggrieved employee can bring a lawsuit, whether on his or her own behalf or on behalf of others (i.e, as a class or collective action). If the individual or group prevails, the employer is automatically liable for twice the lost wages (framed as liquidated damages), benefits and other compensation (with lost wages, benefits and other compensation calculated as the difference between what was paid and what should have been paid), and attorneys’ fees. A prevailing employer gets nothing.

•    There is a three year statute of limitations.

While The Attorney General also may also bring suit on behalf of one or more employees, it is far more likely that the litigation will be brought by the industry of plaintiffs’ attorneys who stand to be paid their attorneys’ fees, either by settlement or if they prevail .
An employer may defend against a claim if, within three years prior to the commencement of such claim, it completed a self-evaluation of its pay practices (which practices include wages, benefits, and other compensation) and can demonstrate that reasonable progress has been made towards eliminating any gender-based compensation differentials that may have been found. Amazingly, however, an employer that conducts a self-audit and discovers that one or more employees are overpaid in relation to other employees cannot reduce employees’ wages, benefits or other compensation to come into compliance.

In addition, if the Proposed Law is enacted as drafted, employers will not be allowed to:

•    Prohibit employees from discussing their own or other employees’ wages (this is already protected by federal law, specifically the National Labor Relations Act and, for federal contractors and subcontractors, Executive Order 13665).
•    Screen job applicants based on their wage history, or requesting or requiring an applicant, as a condition of being interviewed or continuing to be considered for an offer, disclose prior wage history. As with all other aspects of the Proposed Law, “wages” includes benefits and other compensation. This will make it very difficult to determine how to make a competitive offer to an individual.
•    Seek the compensation history of any prospective employee from any current or former employer, unless an offer of employment has been made and the prospective employee so authorizes, in writing.
•    Retaliate in any way against an employee exercising his or her rights under the Proposed Law.

Many employers obviously are concerned about the impact that this Proposed Law will have on their businesses. By way of example only, employers are concerned about the ability to attract talent at market rates that may be different than individuals already employed, as well as the myriad other circumstances where the Proposed Law may impede business decisions and expose them to costly and uncertain litigation. As the Proposed Law has not been enacted, for those employers who are concerned about it, now would be the time to contact industry associations, legislative representatives and any others with political involvement to raise their concerns about the negative consequences of this legislation as presently drafted.
[1] A published Federal Jury Instructions provides that in order to establish a bona fide merit system, an employer must demonstrate a “structured process under which employees are systematically evaluated according to established standards that are designed to determine the relative merits of their performance”. Such a definition defies the reality that an individual’s performance is measured in multiple ways, many of which are not easily measured (e.g., enthusiasm, commitment to a job, level of effort, etc.).