As state lawmakers work to implement the state’s 2017 pay equity legislation before its January 2019 deadline, a lawsuit involving Cheyenne Ross and her employer, the State of Oregon, may be a harbinger of the challenges the state may face.
Oregon has one of the more stringent equal pay requirements in the country, including measures such as advanced scheduling and banning salary history inquiries for prospective employees. The state’s law affects all organizations and many of the provisions will take effect January 1, 2019. The general provisions of the law makes it an unlawful employment practice to:
Discriminate between employees on the basis of a “protected class” in payment of wages or other compensation for “work of a comparable character”
Screen applicants on the basis of current or past compensation
Seek the salary history of an applicant or employee before an offer of employment is made
Determine compensation for a position based on current or past compensation of a prospective employee
The state government has been working on conducting pay equity analyses for its departments to address any potential pay inequities between state workers. The law allows employers to request a waiver of compensatory or punitive damages if a detailed equal‐pay analysis is done (specific to complainant’s protected class) and the employer corrected the pay discrepancies. If this is done, employers may be protected from compensatory and punitive damage liability for the next three years. The state’s legislative, judiciary and administrative branches are all conducting analyses to determine where pay equity issues may exist.
Getting the attention of some lawmakers is the lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in Eugene this fall by Ross. An attorney who has been employed since 2009 as a legislative analyst with the state’s Legislative Policy and Research Office, Ross claims that her male co-workers, who perform the same level of work and have the same or less experience, were being paid significantly more than her. A similar lawsuit was filed by Ross in July in Marion County Circuit Court in which she asked the state pay her $140,000 in back wages and damages for gender discrimination.
Ross’s lawyer Loren Collins wrote in the federal court filing, as quoted in an article in the Oregonian: “Despite this extensive experience, plaintiff has been paid less than her male co-workers who have the same or less experience, and for the same or comparable work performed. One male analyst with comparable skills, experience and responsibility was paid 40 percent more than Plaintiff – a difference of over $30,000 per year.”
In an article written by the Associated Press, Collins said Ross’s claim is not based on the pay equity legislation or results of any pay equity analysis by the state. “Changes in the 2017 law expanded coverage of the Equal Pay Act, but the Equal Pay Act, as it related to gender, was a law already on the books for the state of Oregon and a federal law,” Collins told AP.
However, the lawsuit is one of many signs that Oregon will be dealing with some significant equal pay situations among government employees. As Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney told AP: “I am sure it’s going to cost us more money than we’re paying right now. We’re going to have to find the money… I believe we should pay people what they’re worth.”
Oregon is just one of the many states to pass legislation bolstering the federal Equal Pay Act, some of which will be impacting businesses and state and local government agencies. In some states, such as Massachusetts and Oregon, conducting a pay equity audit can protect employers from significant financial impacts from either failing to meet regulatory requirements or lawsuits. These employers may want to get ahead of the curve by having a pay audit performed.