BOSTON (Legal Newsline) - Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has issued an unprecedented wave of requests for payroll records across the Commonwealth to possibly bolster the argument for new legislation that could lead to equal pay class action lawsuits.
These actions are part of an investigation aimed at bolstering support for proposed amendments to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA). The law, first enacted in 1945, made Massachusetts the first state to pass legislation requiring men and women to be paid the same amount for comparable work.
Daniel Klein, a partner in the Labor and Employment Department of Seyfarth Shaw’s Boston office, reported to the Legal Newsline that this represents “a unique investigation effort” and that “we presume that [it] is related to pushing the proposed legislation, possibly in order to collect data so that they can make out a better case to those legislators who are more resistant to amending the statute”.
The bill, S.983 is sponsored by four Democrats - Sen. Patricia Jehlen, Rep. Jay Livingstone, Sen. Karen Spilka, and Rep. Ellen Story. A major provision in the measure would prohibit employers from maintaining wage confidentiality policies and prevent them from requesting information about prospective employees’ compensation and gender during the hiring process.
Under current law, employers are free to offer lower salaries to women than they might offer to a man seeking the same position. According to the American Association of University Women, women in Massachusetts make about 80 percent of what men make; thus requiring them to reveal salary information to potential employers puts them at a disadvantage.
Klein said that this “may be one of the reasons that [Healey is] suddenly investigating numerous employers who do not have an actual complaint or allegation against them, they’re just investigating out-of-the-blue for pay data to see if there are gender disparities”.
The bill also contains provisions that would strengthen enforcement action against companies in violation of MEPA because it would lengthen the time an employee has to bring a discrimination suit from one to three years and would provide for the awarding of attorneys fees.
When asked about the possibility of future class action lawsuits under revised statues, Klein stated that “it wouldn’t surprise me if [after] the investigations are done that information potentially could be obtained by a FOIA request and the stated public record equivalents, so that even if the attorney general doesn’t bring action down the road, there could be private class action attorneys that try to obtain the info and then fish for a class action lawsuit."
He added that “there has not been a lot of that type of litigation in Massachusetts, really never under [the existing] statute," but that the proposed legislation will likely make it more difficult for companies to defend against class actions.
“So I think [it’s likely to expect] more class actions if the bill were to pass to amend the statute”.
Klein also pointed out that the proposed legislation in Massachusetts has been modeled after a new California law that was amended on Jan. 12.