Just in time for Equal Pay Day (April 10), in its en banc opinion in Rizo v. Yovino, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, the Ninth Circuit held earlier this week that prior salary alone, or in combination with other factors, cannot justify a wage differential between male and female employees under the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”). In reaching this holding, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment to Fresno County and overruled a prior Ninth Circuit decision, Kouba v. Allstate Insurance Co., 691 F. 2d 873 (9th Cir. 1982). The court in Rizo also took a view of available EPA affirmative defenses which conflicts with the views held by other circuits and the EEOC.
Last year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) unveiled its proposed revisions to the Employer Information Report EEO-1 (EEO-1). Previously, the EEO-1 directed federal contractors and employers with 100 or more employees to report annually the number of individuals that they employ by job category, race, ethnicity and gender in 10 different job groupings. As part of the Obama administration’s enhanced focus on equal pay, the EEOC’s proposed EEO-1 revisions aimed to expand the information collected to include pay data and working hours to help the EEOC discover potential discrimination in employment and pay equity.
The EEOC finalized its new EEO-1 in September 2016, and the additional information was to be provided by employers by the next reporting deadline in March 2018. That was the plan until the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stepped in.
For approximately fifty years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has collected workforce data about race, gender, ethnicity and job category from all businesses with 100 or more employees, using the EEO-1 report. In an effort to combat pay discrimination, last year the EEOC announced that it finalized regulations expanding the information collected in the annual EEO-1 report to include pay data.
The revised EEO-1 form requires employers to collect aggregate W-2 earnings and report the number of employees in each of the twelve pay bands (spanning from $19,239 and under to $208,000 and over) for the ten EEO-1 job categories (Executive/Senior Level Officials and Managers; First/Mid Level Officials and Managers; Professionals; Technicians; Sales Workers; Administrative Support Workers; Craft Workers; Operatives; Laborers and Helpers; Service Workers) and classified by race, sex and ethnicity. The revised EEO-1 form has been largely criticized by employers claiming that the collection of W-2 earnings, without any context to explain legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for pay disparities (e.g., education, training, experience, tenure, merit, etc.) will unnecessarily open the door to increased scrutiny and investigations. To make matters worse, the EEOC has not been very forthcoming about how the information would be analyzed and used, other than as a “screening tool” to identify pay discrimination.
Maryland joins California, New York and Massachusetts by passing legislation aimed at combating wage disparity based on gender. (For a discussion on California, New York and Massachusetts’s Equal Pay Laws, click on our previous posts.)
Expanding Equal Pay for Equal Work
The new law, which goes into effect October 1, 2016, amends Maryland’s existing Equal Pay for Equal Work Act by expanding the prohibition on wage discrimination based on “sex” to also include “gender identity.” The protection against pay discrimination for work performed in the same establishment and of comparable character or on the same operation encompasses more than just unequal payment of wages. The new law also bars discrimination for “providing less favorable employment opportunities,” which includes: (1) assigning or directing an employee into a less favorable career track or position; (2) failing to provide information about promotions or advancement opportunities in the full range of career tracks offered by the employer; or (3) limiting or depriving an employee of employment opportunities that would otherwise be available but for the employee’s sex or gender identity.
Employee payroll audits, which have long been recommended as a best practice for corporations that want to stay on the right side of the law, have become even more critical with the current proliferation of labor and employment laws at the state level. Among other things, the California Fair Pay Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2016, places new demands on California employers that in many cases can only be effectively satisfied by means that include a payroll audit.
Earlier this month, we held a webinar to discuss the CA Fair Pay Act requirements and what employees should do to comply. Below you will find some of the key takeaways.
What is the California Fair Pay Act?
The new law goes further and imposes more obligations on employers than longstanding federal and state equal-pay and employment-discrimination laws. More than simply requiring employers to pay men and women equal pay for the same work, the California statute prohibits employers from paying members of one sex less than the rates paid to employees of the opposite sex “for substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions.” And the employees of opposite sexes whose jobs and pay are being compared need not work together in the same establishment. There are several important defenses to liability under the law, such as the employer’s use of a bona fide factor that is not sex-related.
How can a payroll audit help?
Determining what types of work are “substantially similar” in terms of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions is no easy task. That’s where a payroll audit can help.
On a step-by-step basis, a properly conducted audit will identify potential problems under the California Fair Pay Act by identifying positions that have “substantially similar work,” analyzing the pay of these workers by gender, finding any disparities in pay, and determining whether any defenses apply. For example, does the company have a bona fide seniority system or merit system, or is there a business necessity for the disparities in pay?
In addition to these complex Fair Pay Act questions, employee payroll audits remain desirable or necessary for other purposes, such as ensuring that employees are treated fairly under the company’s employee benefit plan and that certain employees or groups of employees are not excluded from the plan.
What steps should be taken?
When conducting a payroll audit, it should be done with review and consultation of attorney with the end goal of identifying and quickly addressing disparities that cannot be explained adequately or need to be corrected. It is important to note that the audit is subject to attorney/client privilege and/or work product protection. The following are key steps in the audit process:
- Consider all job titles/descriptions across all geographic regions
- Consider how to identify or sort based on disparate geographical locations
- Compare the positions that have “substantially similar work”
- Determine if the statutory exemptions apply
- Identify explanations for disparities
- Address disparities that can’t be explained
- Determine what action needs to be taken
From a compliance perspective, the number one benefit to conducting employee payroll audits is the ability to determine what action needs to be taken to address and correct disparities if they exist. Failure to address disparities that can’t be explained within the requirements of the California Fair Pay Act or the Federal Pay Act can result in penalties, sanctions and, in some cases, litigation with the DOL and/or IRS. Ongoing compliance should include regular review of the following:
- Handbooks and policies to remove outdated references to “equal” work
- Policies that prevent employees from discussing or asking about other employees’ compensation
- How compensation decisions are made and adjust if necessary
- Job descriptions – update and describe as comprehensive as possible
- Record keeping – records must be kept for three years
- Training of HR personnel, senior management on the new law and how it should be applied in setting compensation at hiring
Earlier this week, the New Jersey General Assembly passed a bill that would amend the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) to address specifically pay differentials among employees of different sexes who perform “substantially similar” work. The amendment, which the state Senate passed last month, will now be delivered to the Governor for consideration.
As the NJLAD exists now, an employee can bring a pay-related claim only by alleging that the differential amounts to sex discrimination and satisfying a comparatively higher standard. If the bill is signed into law, New Jersey would follow in the footsteps of other states like New York and California, which have recently updated their discrimination laws to provide a separate cause of action specifically for unequal pay.
The bill, if enacted into law, would severely limit the circumstances under which an employer can pay male and female employees different amounts for “substantially similar” work. An employer would be permitted to do so if it can demonstrate that it is utilizing a seniority (pay based on tenure) or merit (pay based on achieving certain goals) system. Alternatively, the employer would need to demonstrate that each of the following factors exists:
• The differential is based on one or more legitimate, bona fide factors other than sex, such as training, education or experience, or the quantity or quality of production;
• The factor or factors do not perpetuate a sex-based differential in compensation;
• Each of the factors is applied reasonably;
• One or more of the factors account for the entire wage differential; and
• The factors are job-related with respect to the position in question and based on a legitimate business necessity, and there are no alternative business practices that would serve the same business purpose without producing the wage differential.
If enacted, the New Jersey bill would also significantly increase potential employer exposure, in that the recovery period would be extended to pick up the entire time period when the pay differential existed.
With the passing of this bill by both houses, and with laws specifically targeting gender-based pay differences on the rise generally, employers would be wise to look at their employees’ titles and job descriptions to identify “substantially similar” positions and any pay differentials among the employees in those positions. Where such differences exist, employers will want to explore the reason for those differences and whether changes need to be made. If an employer has an established seniority or merit-based system on which it intends to rely, it is important that the system be set forth in detail and made available to all employees, so that there is no question as to its existence and applicability later.