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