Fighting for Women's Equality

How Does the California Fair Pay Act Affect Me?

January 27, 2016 | by

California has the strongest equal pay law in the country. The California Fair Pay Act went into effect on January 1, and will be a powerful tool for closing the gender wage gap if properly enforced. All workers should know their rights under the newly amended law.

First and foremost, the Fair Pay Act prohibits employers from paying an employee less than a coworker of the opposite sex if they perform “substantially similar” work under similar working conditions. The law defines “substantially similar” work as that which requires similar skills, effort, and responsibility – the job titles of the employees being compared to each other do not need to be the same. For example, a housekeeper and a janitor at a hotel could be doing “substantially similar” work that would require equal pay, despite their different titles.

So when can an employer pay you less than your coworker of the opposite sex? Despite your work being “substantially similar,” an employer may pay you less if the pay difference is based on:

  • a seniority system
  • a merit system
  • a compensation system that is based on the quantity or quality of work production, or
  • a factor that has nothing to do with sex, such as a difference in education, training, or experience that is directly related to the job in question.

Even with these specific guidelines in place, workers often have no way of knowing if they are being paid fairly without being able to ask questions and discuss pay openly with their coworkers. To that end, the Fair Pay Act protects employees’ right to discuss pay or raise concerns about unequal pay with their employer. You cannot be fired, demoted, given lower pay, or otherwise retaliated against for discussing pay.

If you believe that you are being paid unfairly under California’s equal pay law, there are some important steps you should take, even if you are not ready to file a formal complaint.

1) First, make sure you keep or make a record of the pay practices you believe are unfair; copies of your pay stubs and other records showing your wages or salary history, as well as any documents describing your job duties, qualifications, and any performance evaluations could all be helpful. 
2) Second, gather any information you have about your coworkers’ pay; you can ask them directly or ask your employer. Although your employer is not obligated to share other employees’ pay rates with you if they are normally kept private, it is illegal to discriminate or retaliate against you for asking. It’s also a good idea to check your employee handbook or union collective bargaining agreement for any written policies about how pay decisions are made.

After you’ve collected as much of this information as you can, if you believe you are being paid less than you should be, you may consider making a formal complaint to your employer. It’s generally best to do this in writing. Check your employee handbook for information about where and how to complain about salary issues. Usually this can be done through a Human Resources or an Equal Employment Opportunity office, but sometimes you may just need to go straight to your manager. If you are in a union, speak with your union representative about how to file a grievance. While the law doesn’t require you to go through your employer’s internal complaint process before filing a legal claim for unequal pay, it can sometimes help to resolve the situation more quickly.

If you are unsure whether you have a legal claim or you want help pursuing a legal claim for unequal pay or retaliation and have questions about the process, contact ERA for free Advice & Counseling: online here or call 1-800-839-4372.

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