A class action lawsuit was filed against Apple on June 13 accusing the company of paying more than 12,000 women in California less than men with comparable jobs. 

The lawsuit, filed in state court in San Francisco by two women who have worked at Apple for more than a decade, claims the company systematically underpays women employees in California in its engineering, marketing, and AppleCare divisions. 

The plaintiffs claim Apple bases workers’ starting pay on their salaries at previous jobs or on their “pay expectations,” which results in lower pay rates for women. The lawsuit also claims that Apple’s performance review system, which influences compensation increases, is biased against women. 

The Compounding Effect of Starting Salary

“Since 2017, Apple has achieved and maintained gender pay equity and every year we partner with an independent third-party expert to examine each team member’s total compensation and make adjustments, where necessary, to ensure that we maintain pay equity,” the company said.

Given Apple’s high profile, the case’s outcome could have significant ripple effects. Particularly, if the case proceeds, courts could provide additional guidance on interpreting the California Equal Pay Act. 

Other Elements of the Case 

Among the claims from the plaintiffs is that Apple knew or should have known about these pay disparities and yet took no action to remedy them. 

As a result of Apple’s alleged unlawful pay policies and practices, the women claim that all proposed class members have been denied compensation legally owed to them for work performed since 2020, and are entitled to wages and other damages. In addition to various monetary damages, the women also seek an order from the court to stop Apple’s alleged discriminatory practices.

Ensuring Fair Pay at Hire and Promotion 

The women claim that before the fall of 2017, Apple asked job candidates for prior pay information and, when that practice became unlawful in January 2018, continued to inquire about pay expectations which, the complaint alleges, is highly correlated with a candidate’s prior pay.

Apple used this information to set starting salaries, resulting in lower pay rates for women than for men who perform substantially similar work, according to the plaintiffs. 

Potential Points of Nuance 

Whether the plaintiffs’ claims can be proven will go a long way toward deciding the extent of potential wrongdoing by the company under California law

Notably, the court will need to determine whether the work being performed was “substantially similar.” This has been a point of contention as more pay equity lawsuits arise across the country

In Freyd v. Univ. of Oregon (2021), the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of a female professor’s Equal Pay Act (EPA) suit, finding that her comparators performed a “common core” of tasks and “substantially equal work.” The court emphasized the overall job rather than individual tasks, despite differences in research, courses taught, students supervised, centers managed, and funding types. This decision advises against fine distinctions in comparing work equality.

Contrastingly, the Fourth Circuit in Polak v. Virginia Dep’t of Env’t Quality (2023) held that “substantially equal work” under the EPA requires the comparator’s work to be “virtually identical” to the plaintiff’s work in skill, effort, and responsibility. Polak involved a female coastal planner and her male counterpart, both working closely but with different responsibilities and project complexities. The Fourth Circuit concluded that their work was only “similar,” not “equal,” due to significant differences in actual work and complexity. Therefore, a “common core of tasks” does not meet the “substantially equal” standard in the Fourth Circuit.

In the context of a recent California case interpreting the California Equal Pay Act, Jewett v. Oracle America Inc. (2020), a court certified a class action to proceed against Oracle holding that the use of job codes by the employer was evidence that the work was “substantially similar” to certify a class. Oracle subsequently agreed to settle the case for $25 million in February 2024.

The Apple case could offer further guidance in how “substantially similar” work is interpreted in the context of California’s equal pay law.