The Uprising, June 22, 2018 – Fair Pay edition

Joseph Shekarchi

You have no idea Representative, respectfully, how much time went into this version. Every business group that we could find voiced an opinion. We’ve had dozens of people working on this for the entire session. So, with all due respect, this is a comprehensive bill that has a significant amount of input.”
-Rhode Island Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) on the Fair Pay Act

Welcome to a truncated version of The Uprising! I’ll be adding more to this piece later, but with the General Assembly finishing its session today, and some events that need me out in the field instead of at my desk typing, I thought it important to at least get out some coverage of the Fair Pay Act debate in the House last night.

Look for an updated, more comprehensive Uprising later tonight.

1. Fair Pay

Last night the House of Representatives passed their own version of the Fair Pay Act that differed substantially from the version passed unanimously in the Senate. The intent of the act is to close the gap between what women and minorities make in the workplace when compared to their white male coworkers. Business groups, who we are to believe truly want to pay fair salaries, despite having had years to implement such practices, opposed the bills.

The Fight for $15 and Fair Pay Coalition provided a useful breakdown of how the bills differ, and how the House version fails women and people of color.

  • Completely removes “comparable work,” leaving only an antiquated and ineffective standard. Rhode Island has required equal pay for “equal work” since the 1950s, but the standard has proven ineffective as it requires work to be exactly the same. Ten states use the “comparable work” standard included in the Senate version.
  • Provides no incentive for employers to proactively look for an eliminate wage disparities. Women and people of color who have been discriminated against can only collect back pay and compensatory damages, not liquidated damages and punitive damages. An employer who had been discriminating would owe no more than they would have if they were doing the right thing to begin with, giving companies an incentive to keep discriminating until they get caught.
  • Creates giant loopholes, leaving those who can prove they have been discriminated against with no recourse at all. The House bill allows an employer self-evaluation of their own pay practices of their own design conducted within five years to serve as a affirmative defense. This means that even if the evaluation found rampant discrimination, even if the employer didn’t fix it, and even if a woman proves she had been discriminated against she would have absolutely no remedy.
  • Removes the ability for a woman to pursue legal action in court. Women may only file complaints through the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, and would have have no recourse in court.
  • Lowers penalties under existing law for companies that discriminate. The 1950s equal pay law instated fines of $200 for a violation, which would be more than $2000 in 2018. The Sub A lowers the fines to $100. [Note: This seems to have been rectified by a floor amendment]
  • Only applies to some. The law exempts employers with fewer than 18 employees and temporary and seasonal workers. Exempting thousands of workers covered by the current equal pay law.
  • Undoes local equal pay efforts. The House bill would negate the city of Providence’s recent equal pay ordinance through pre-emption.

The discussion on the floor was robust, but ultimately the measure passed on a 66 to 9 vote. As the quote from the Speaker at the start of this piece indicates, House Leadership has made a strategic play here: They are betting that they are better off serving the interests of business donors than the interests of women and people of color.

What’s worse: This bet always pays off for them.

1b. Mattiello said he would do this in January

He didn’t mention the Fair Pay Act, or any specific legislation, but Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the 2018 Rhode Island Small Business Economic Summit back in January, said to the assembled business community:

“We all have the same goal. Help our small businesses create an environment that’s conducive to job growth. My mantra: Jobs and the Economy.”

This is called trickle-down economics. The favored economic strategy of oligarchs and corrupt politicians.

1c. Preemption

No other state in New England has passed even one preemptive labor law.

Rhode Island has passed two, and if the House version of the Fair Pay Act were to be signed into law, it will have passed three.

Writing for the Economic Policy Institute, Marni von Wilbert defines “preemption” as “a situation in which a state law is enacted to block a local ordinance from taking effect or [to] dismantle an existing ordinance.” In the same piece von Wilbert writes, “conservative state legislators have increasingly used preemption laws to strike down local government efforts to increase the quality of life for working people in their municipalities.” [emphasis mine]

Here’s House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick) defending the practice of preemption, mirroring the talk of business lobbyists:

Here’s Elizabeth Suever is a lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, saying essentially the same thing during her testimony back in March on the Senate version of the bill. Don’t be fooled. The term “uniformity” means the same thing as “preemption.” Note that corporate/business lobbyist John Simmons, representing the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) and the Rhode Island Business Coalition, agreed with all of Suever’s points, as did other business lobbyists who only submitted written testimony.

“Every business group that we could find voiced an opinion,” said Speaker Mattiello.

1d. Diminishment of protections

Will the House version of the Fair Pay Act take away legal protections from a certain class of people? Under question from Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence), House Labor Committee Chair Representative Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown) admitted that they do.

“There would be a diminishment of protections for those employees that are in a shop that has 17 or less employees,” said Craven. He later elaborated that other laws might protect such employees, but this legislation would undo the protections of the 1956 equal pay laws.

1e. Brave but futile efforts to defend

Representative Edith Ajello (Democrat, District 1, Providence) made the most impassioned and heroic efforts to defend the intent of the original bill, far exceeding the efforts of even Representative Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol), who sponsored the bill yet still voted for the seriously compromised version.

It was excruciating to watch the condescending treatment she received from male colleagues as she attempted to amend the bill by submitting thee Senate version in its entirety. Representative Stephen Ucci (Democrat, District 42, Johnston) led the charge to kill Ajello’s amendment.

“Women deserve equal protection under the law,” said Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown). “We deserve more than this half a bill today, and then we need to wait another decade before we get another quarter loaf of something. It’s not enough. We’re hungry. We deserve more. We’re waiting for more. We’re demanding more.”

“I think it is unwise for us to put into law that sexism is legal as long as you have 18 workers,” said Representative Moira Walsh (Democrat, District 3, Providence). “I don’t think it’s wise for a room that is so heavily weighted towards men to be telling women what they do and do not deserve. I think a room that is 70 percent men, telling women that they should be grateful for the crumbs that fall off their plate, is shameful.”

“I am deeply troubled by this bill,” said Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence). “I am deeply troubled because we’re going back decades in terms of pay equity. Women of color and Black women are still not receiving the same wages as white women or white men.”

1g. The final words were from a white dude, of course

Here’s Majority Leader Shekarchi, explaining to women and people of color throughout Rhode Island why their concerns are secondary to the interests of business:

Here’s the shorter version, courtesy of Representative James McLaughlin (Democrat, District 57, Central Falls):


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About Steve Ahlquist 492 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

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