House unanimously approves pay equity bill

Updated at 6:23 p.m.

THE HOUSE on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation mandating equal pay for women and minorities. PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

PROVIDENCE – The House on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation mandating equal pay for women and minorities by updating the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

The legislation, known as the Fair Employment Practices Act, sponsored by Rep. Susan R. Donovan, D-Bristol, will be voted on in the full Senate later this week.

The legislation that the House approved is an amended version of a bill passed by the Senate in March. Both chambers must pass an identical bill for the measure to move to Gov. Daniel J. McKee for his consideration.

The intent of the legislation is to combat wage discrimination against women, minorities, and other vulnerable groups by strengthening and closing gaps in Rhode Island’s existing wage discrimination laws. The bill provides employers with a year-and-a-half learning curve to implement the policy.

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The legislation also gives the director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training the power to bring legal action against an employer for an inequity claim, while also providing protections for employers, including when it might be permissible to pay an employee differently. An employer liable for a civil penalty would be obligated to pay the DLT fines from $1,000 up to $5,000.

House leadership, including Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, supported the legislation. Shekarchi noted that it could be a model bill for pay equity in the nation.

Shekarchi lauded Donovan for her three-year effort to shepherd the legislation toward passage. “This is the most proud vote I have taken since I have been here,” said Shekarchi.

Donovan read a prepared speech where she gave kudos to the various organizations and groups who collaborated on the legislation. Her comments were met with applause.

“As most of you know this bill is really important to me,” said Donovan, who noted that she had been a victim of wage discrimination at one point in her life. “I want to thank you, Mr. speaker, for making this legislation a priority, by shepherding this legislation through a really difficult negotiation and a final compromise. Fixing wage disparities will put money directly in the hands of families who need it, and they will spend it in our local economy.”

John Simmons, spokesman for the R.I. Business Coalition and former CEO and president of the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council, painted the legislation as a compromise between lawmakers and the business community. Simmons said that while some businesses do not like mandated policies, the coalition was pleased with the employer protections that were incorporated into the bill.

“I think we’re comfortable that we came to a negotiated resolution amongst a lot of business groups, and what we think is a workable document,” said Simmons, who noted that what came out of the negotiations “was something that employers can work with.”

Simmons said that the business community was aware of the legislation, and some companies had already implemented a pay equity policy. Some companies, he said, have already needed to adhere to pay equity policies since they conduct business nationally, in other states where it is mandated.

“There’s going to be a learning process by employers,” he said. “That’s why it was important in the early discussions about needing a year-and-a-half for employers to understand the requirements, and then to implement them.”

Liz Catucci, CEO and president of Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said, “It was critical that the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce was involved in this very important dialogue to address pay equality for women and minorities. We are extremely grateful to Speaker Shekarchi for the time and effort he invested in these conversations. We are also thankful to the many business groups that provided us with valuable information and expertise over the past three months as the Northern Rhode Island Chamber worked with the proponents of the legislation to craft a workable law.”

Catucci said that Sarah Bratko, vice president of advocacy and general counsel for the R.I. Hospitality Association, played a pivotal role in the negotiations.

Greg Pare, spokesman for the Senate, said, “Pay equity is a priority for the Senate and has been for a number of years.”

Pare said the Senate voted 34 to 2 in March on a companion bill introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin, D-Providence, a longtime advocate for equal pay. Sen. Goldin has been a champion on the issue for many years.

The National Women’s Law Center said women who work full time typically earn a wage of 82 cents for every $1 men earn nationally. In Rhode Island, women earn 84.8 cents for every $1 men earn. As for women of color, Black women in the state earn 61 cents for every $1 earned by men, while Latinas earn 53 cents.

(UPDATED throughout with vote, comment.)

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at

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  1. Feel good bill with no real way to monitor it. Wouldn’t expect anything more from Golden. Bill could result in less women being hired. Ooops.
    Employers will pay employees what the employee is worth to the employer. Simple fact of life.