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Rhode Island Democrats Reject Greater Equal Pay Protections

Auditi Guha

“Rhode Island has created a political environment in which women are ignored,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, president of Rhode Island National Organization for Women. “We can and must do better.”

Rhode Island’s legislative session ended Saturday with no action taken on bills protecting women, like equal pay, reproductive health care, and sexual harassment. House legislators instead reverted to 72-year-old equal pay protections, which advocates say don’t adequately protect women from being paid less than their male counterparts.

The Democratic-majority house voted 66 to 9 on H7427-A, a bill that differs significantly from a state senate version passed in April that strongly supported women workers. It undercuts the senate’s Fair Pay Act of 2018 (S2475) that would have made it illegal to pay workers less than their white male colleagues while doing comparable work, banned policies preventing workers from discussing their pay with each other, required companies to disclose salary ranges, and eliminated the use of salary history in setting wages. But many of these apply only to workplaces with 18 or more workers.

The house bill weakens many of these protections and reverts back to an old 1950s “equal work” standard instead of the “comparable work” standard, advocates said. It fails women workers and people of color by leaving no recourse for those facing workplace discrimination, removing the ability for women to pursue legal action in court, and undoing local efforts like Providence’s recent equal pay ordinance.

Seventy-two years after Rhode Island made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work, women working full time make 86 cents to the dollar a man earns. Black women make 58 percent of what their white male counterparts make, and Latinas make 51 percent.

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“We are disappointed that the House passed a version of the Fair Pay act that does little to advance fair pay in Rhode Island and actually rolls back some protections that were previously in place,” Kelly Nevins, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island, said in a statement. “I’m sure many of our representatives thought they were doing a good thing, but by not awarding liquidated damages, there is little incentive for companies to change any discriminatory practices that result in pay inequities. Even the fine assessed of $200 is no different than the original law from the 1950s.”

It was a “shocking” vote for The Woman Project, said Jordan Hevenor, co-founder of the nonprofit that has advocated for the passage of the Reproductive Health Care Act (RHCA). “The RHCA has 28 co-sponsors, and to see that a fair pay bill sending us backward get 66 votes really felt like a punch in the gut,” she told Rewire.News.

“The Woman Project responded by sending out a newsletter outlining the how to run for office, using my own journey filling to be a state committeewoman. The end of the session made it clear that we need more voices in the General Assembly that will represent the voices their constituents,” said Jocelyn Foye, co-founder of The Woman Project.

The state senate issued a statement that it will not take up the house version, so the legislation is dead, but advocates worry about the message the house sends—that women’s rights are not a concern in the statehouse.

“Rhode Island has created a political environment in which women are ignored,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, president of Rhode Island National Organization for Women (RI NOW). “We can and must do better … to speak out and vote to protect women.”

The legislation falls short of the reasonable “compromise” that house leaders claimed it makes, Georgia Hollister Isman, state director of the Rhode Island Working Families Party, told Rewire.News.

“They really did push this bill to the floor over the objections of a lot of people and it goes beyond a compromise, not even something most people in the business community really support. I think lots of people understand it to be a step backwards,” she said. The realization that Democratic house leadership does not prioritize the needs of working women “is galvanizing a lot of people to be more involved in state politics than they ever have before, and that has long time political consequences.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-Cranston), who has been no friend to the RHCA or reproductive rights, has long been an ally of the the business lobby. He said in January that he intended to expand protections for businesses in Rhode Island.

Other legislation like the sexual harassment bill did not get to floor because they were apparently “big policy decisions” introduced “late in the session,” he told the Associated Press this week.

Officials from chambers of commerce and organizations like the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity said at an impassioned hearing last week that the equal pay legislation is unfair to small businesses.

House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) and Rep. James McLaughlin (D-Central Falls), who both voted for the bill, spoke of the concerns of the business lobby and responded to criticism from women and workers.

“I’ve heard negative comments about the men in this chamber. Well, I am the father of a daughter, and I resent that, OK? I think this body moves more legislation through for women, and minorities, and color, uh, people of color, you know something, than anybody else around,” McLaughlin said. “The negativity provides nothing. This is a good bill. Please support it.”

Nine Democrats opposed the bill. Advocates were disappointed to see the number of women in the legislature who voted for it, including those who have championed other women’s issues.

Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (South Kingstown and Narragansett), who proposed legislation to remove the statute of limitations on injuries caused by child predators, voted for the bill, but Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown), who sponsored a bill to create a panel to study workplace sexual harassment, voted no. Neither responded to emails from Rewire.News.

“Legislatively, 2018 was NOT the year of the woman, but electorally it will be!!” Tanzi wrote Monday in a Twitter post.

“The session ended in a way that is very disappointing to women in Rhode Island,” Hollister Isman said. “I think it’s going to have a ripple effect, which I don’t imagine the house leadership intended through this election cycle.”

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