Diane Allen unveils legislation to achieve pay equity

Sunday, May 28th, 2017
By David Levinsky,  Burlington County Times

TRENTON — After months of negotiations, state Sen. Diane Allen believes she may have finally brokered a compromise between Democratic leaders and Gov. Chris Christie to toughen New Jersey’s anti-discrimination law to ensure women receive equal pay.

Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, introduced a new pay-equity bill Thursday, describing it as an “effective and reasonable solution” to the pay gap between men and women. She said the bill was the result of months of discussions she had with Democratic and Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th of Teaneck, Christie and members of his administration.

“I won’t say we’re finished, but we’re very close,” Allen said Friday. “I know a lot of people have bought in to great extent.”

Landing Christie’s support is essential.

The governor twice conditionally vetoed legislation authored by Weinberg on the issue, including a bill the Legislature sent him last year that sought to guarantee equal pay for women by amending the state’s discrimination law to expressly prohibit unequal pay for “substantially similar” work.

The legislation also sought to extend the statute of limitations for unequal-pay claims and boost the potential penalties.

Weinberg’s bill was approved last year by 28-4 in the Senate and 54-14 in the Assembly. But Christie conditionally vetoed the measure in May, saying it went beyond the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and oversimplified wage comparisons, “while ignoring any consideration of the employer’s practices or facilities.”

“This is nonsensical and makes New Jersey very business-unfriendly,” Christie wrote in his veto message.

Allen, who has said she experienced wage discrimination during her career as a television news reporter and anchor, was one of five Republicans who voted in favor of the legislation last year. She also voted with Democrats in support of two failed attempts to override Christie’s veto.

Following the failed overrides, Allen took it upon herself to author new legislation to address the issue, arguing that the pay gap is real and needs to be “eradicated.”

The longtime 7th District senator is retiring from politics when her term ends in January, and she has said passing pay-equity legislation is one of her foremost goals for her remaining time in office.

Allen’s bill is substantially similar to Weinberg’s previous measure, and she said the North Jersey Democrat provided huge amounts of input, as the two spoke almost daily over the last several months to try to fine-tune the language.

The new bill amends the statute of limitations for unequal-pay claims so that plaintiffs can sue for back pay for the entire period of discrimination, rather than just two years as mandated by the federal law.

It also allows plaintiffs to receive double damages for back pay and lost benefits, although it specifies that the burden of proving unequal compensation was due to discrimination remains on the employee.

The bill also requires employers that contract with the state to keep records of its employees, including their gender, race, job title and compensation, and to turn those records over to the state Department of Labor upon request. Employees who believe they are being discriminated against would then be permitted to request those records anonymously through the department.

Allen said the bill is a compromise that addresses the issue without being overly onerous on small businesses.

“It’s a compromise that also goes further than the previous bill, in some respects,” she said, adding that she believes Christie will be willing to support it.

“The governor has been working hard to compromise on his position,” she said. “I believe at this point he’ll support what I’ve introduced.”

A spokesman for the governor did not immediately comment. Typically, the governor and his office do not comment on pending legislation.

Allen, who is policy chairwoman for the National Foundation for Women Legislators, said she is hopeful the bill can be fast-tracked to the governor before lawmakers break for the summer. If approved, she believes it will become a model for other states.

“I believe we have the opportunity to do something that will break ground for women nationally,” she said. “I encourage anyone who is serious about finding a solution to pay equity to join me in supporting this proposal.”

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