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Massachusetts has made it illegal for employers to ask prospective hires how much money they made at their last jobs. That provision goes into effect in 2018. It's part of a sweeping new law on equal pay that the state's Republican governor signed this week. From member station WBUR in Boston, Fred Thys reports.
FRED THYS, BYLINE: Massachusetts is the first state to forbid employers from asking job applicants how much they made at their previous jobs. The goal is to prevent women from being stuck in a cycle of low salaries. Victoria Budson directs the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and pushed for passage of the law.
VICTORIA BUDSON: This is such an important piece of the pay equity bill because what happens to people over time is if in that first negotiation or those first few jobs out of high school or college you are underpaid, then you really get a snowball effect where if each subsequent salary is really benchmarked to that, then what can happen is that type of usually implicit and occasionally explicit discrimination really then follows that person throughout their career.
THYS: The law's chief sponsor, Democratic state Senator Pat Jehlen, adds that divulging a low salary can even prevent an applicant from getting a job.
PAT JEHLEN: We heard about a woman who had had a phone interview for a job, did very well and didn't hang up at the end of the conference call and heard the other people say she looked like an ideal candidate until we heard what she's making now. She must not be as good as she looks. And they didn't hire her.
THYS: Another notable provision in the new equal pay law is that it protects employees from retribution if they talk openly about how much they're paid. Only a dozen or so states do that. One business group opposed the new law - the Massachusetts High Technology Council. It objected to the presumption that pay differential is the result of discrimination. The group declined to comment for this story.
Other business groups supported the law. One reason - it contains a new first-in-the-nation provision that could help companies. If a company is sued for wage discrimination, it can defend itself by showing that it's taken a look at its pay practices and taken steps to remedy any differences. To Pat Jehlen, that's the most powerful part of the new law.
JEHLEN: Because I think most discrimination is not intentional. I think people are unaware of bias or of the causes of bias. And so if they perform a genuine self-assessment looking across the board at what different people are paid and seeing if there is unintentional differentials, they can use that if somebody tries to bring a suit against them.
THYS: Vicki Shabo tracks pay equity for the National Partnership for Women and Families and says Massachusetts' new law is part of a trend.
VICKI SHABO: It's actually the latest in a run of some pretty strong pay equity laws that have passed over the last year or so in California and New York, recently in Maryland.
THYS: The states are taking lead at a time when Congress has been unable to pass an equal pay bill. For NPR News, I'm Fred Thys in Boston.
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