Oregon is setting a national example for ensuring that employees are paid equally for performing equal work.
In doing so, Oregon also has shown how Democrats and Republicans can work together. And it happened because of the 2017 Legislature’s struggles on an unrelated issue — curbing the soaring costs of the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.
House Bill 2005, known as the Oregon Equal Pay Act of 2017, outlaws wage discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, age, veteran status and other protected classes. It allows different pay levels for equivalent work if the disparity is because of bona fide factors such as merit, seniority and quality of a person’s work.
And it bars employers from asking for job applicants’ salary history before offering a job. That matters because women often have been paid less in the past, and using salary history for a new job can perpetuate that disparity.
The bill, which Gov. Kate Brown plans to sign into law this week, combines enforcement and education. It encourages employers to examine the internal equity of their wages, provides them with legal protections for doing so, but expands penalties for employers who willfully discriminate. The bill initially was so divisive that it was approved in the state House in late March on a party-line vote after Republicans narrowly failed to substitute their own version. Yet the final version unanimously passed both the Senate and last week the House.
How could this be? It stems from good-hearted people being willing to listen, make compromises and not fall victim to ideology. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, gives broad autonomy to his committee chairs instead of orders. He also has a knack for pairing the right people to lead committees, which is where most of the Oregon Legislature’s work gets done.
Kathleen Taylor, a first-term Democratic senator from Milwaukie, and experienced Republican Sen. Tim Knopp, of Bend, did not know each other well before Courtney appointed them to the Senate Workforce Committee.
But chair Taylor and vice chair Knopp developed a collaborative trust and respect as they worked this year on PERS and other issues. Under the Legislature’s deadlines, they ran out of time to resolve PERS, which they shipped off to the legislative budget committee for more work.
Pay equity is a priority for Taylor, and Courtney asked Knopp to work with her on it. Republican Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena, a member of the Workforce Committee, said Taylor’s leadership and Knopp’s collaboration were crucial. Little by little, the committee reshaped the measure from a bad bill into a good bill.
The working relationship between Taylor and Knopp was personified by her giving the opening argument for the bill on the Senate floor and his giving the closing argument, Hansell said.
In the House, the bill had elicited considerable rancor. In the Senate, all sides got their say, as negotiations started by finding common ground. Senators talked with House members about their concerns. Misunderstandings and miscommunications were resolved. Blowups and hiccups happened, but no one was willing to walk away from the negotiating table.
Seeking perfect legislation can be the barrier to achieving good legislation. On the pay equity bill, business and labor — Republicans and Democrats — were largely satisfied that the final version was both effective and reasonable. Oregon can be proud of its equal-pay legislation. And equally proud of its legislators, starting with Sens. Taylor and Knopp.