Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives continue to call for stronger protections to combat wage inequality. By a vote of 242-187, the House recently passed the Paycheck Fairness Act to enhance the federal protections guaranteed under the EPA.

Currently, to defend against an EPA claim, an employer can assert any of four defenses to justify paying men and women differently for the same work. Employers can pay workers at different rates if the wage differential is based on i) seniority, ii) merit, iii) quantity or quality of the employee’s work, or iv) any factor other than sex (sometimes referred to as a “catchall defense”).

The Paycheck Fairness Act, H.R. 7, amends the applicability of the last exception by requiring wage differentials to be based on a “bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training or experience.” This “bona fide factor defense” would require employers to prove that wage differentials fully account for the “entire differential in compensation,” actually relate to the job and are consistent with business necessity, and are not based on or derived from existing gender-based wage disparities.

H.R. 7 also would afford enhanced anti-retaliation protections for employees who not only file pay discrimination claims, but who discuss their salaries with coworkers or initiate or participate in pay equity investigations and hearings. However, employers are not liable under H.R. 7 if an employee with access to wage information, as part of their essential job functions, discloses such information to other employees, unless the employee disclosed the information as part of a complaint or employer-directed investigation.

H.R. 7 would establish the Secretary of Labor’s National Award for Pay Equity in the Workplace to recognize employers for excellence in pay practices. Employers can also receive assistance in instituting compliance checks and modifying their equal pay practices. Lastly, H.R. 7 creates a grant program that would provide funds to eligible entities to design negotiation skills training programs for women and girls.

Support for the measure was divided largely along party lines. House Republicans criticized the bill as “designed for trial lawyers” and pushed to add language limiting attorney’s fees. Under H.R. 7, violators can be subject to enhanced penalties, such as compensatory and punitive damages.

In light of the political composition of the Senate, this bill is unlikely to gain the support needed to be enacted.

This is not the first time this bill has surfaced. Previous efforts to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in the Senate in 2009 after passing in the House of Representatives.

States also continue to pass new fair pay laws.

Our Jackson Lewis Pay Equity Resource Group will continue to monitor these developments and provide guidance on compliance.