What Is the California Equal Pay Act?

California is one of the best states in which to work. California’s employment laws are progressive and largely in favor of workers. One such law is the Equal Pay Act. This act has been part of state law for years, but has undergone several recent amendments. Lawmakers in California are always striving to reduce pay gaps and create equal income-earning opportunities for everyone. Understanding your rights as an employee under the Equal Pay Act could help you stand up for them.

What Is the Equal Pay Act?

California Labor Code 1197.5 and Labor Code section 432.3 contain the state’s equal pay act. These laws state no employer shall pay any employee at a wage rate less than an employee of a different sex or ethnicity performing substantially similar work. An employer may not base a wage differential on sex, ethnicity or another protected class. Instead, the employer must show valid and legal grounds for the difference in pay, such as merit, seniority, quality of production or a bona fide factor such as training, education or experience.

California’s main equal pay law has been in place for decades. In 2015, however, Governor Brown signed a new law into effect for even stronger compensation protections for workers. This law, the California Fair Pay Act, amended the original Equal Pay Act. It changed the language to require equal pay for employees who perform substantially similar work. It eliminated the requirement that both employees work at the same establishment. It also forced employers to use stronger reasons to justify pay inequities.

The amended Equal Pay Act also explicitly made it illegal to retaliate against employees who seek equal pay within the confines of the law. It also made it against the law for employers to ban employees from asking or talking about coworkers’ wages. You can legally speak freely about your wages or coworkers’ wages without fear of retaliation. Finally, the Fair Pay Act extended the number of years an employer must keep wage-related records to three rather than two. This places greater accountability on employers to keep track of payment records.

January 2017 Equal Pay Amendment

Another amendment to the original Equal Pay Act went into effect on January 1st, 2017. This amendment, Assembly Bill 1676, prohibits employers from using only an employee’s previous salary to justify a disparity in compensation with other employees. Previous salary alone cannot be the reason an employer offers less pay to one employee than another that performs substantially similar work. The worker’s previous salary no longer counts as a bona fide factor an employer may use to justify pay differentials.

It is important to note, however, that AB 1676 does not ban an employer from asking an employee or prospective hire about his or her previous salary. Employers may still ask for this information during the hiring process. The company cannot, however, use this information as the sole justification for a disparity in employee wages – especially if the employee is receiving less than someone of a different sex, race, gender or ethnicity with the same or a similar job.

How to File an Equal Pay Act Violation Complaint

If you believe your employer has violated California’s Equal Pay Act, including any of its new amendments, you could file a complaint or civil employment claim. First, bring an official complaint to the California Labor Commissioner. An administrative complaint against your employer could lead to an investigation and an order requiring the company to remedy the issue.

If a complaint does not resolve the problem, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit in the civil courts. A civil suit that comes within two years of the wage violation could lead to reimbursement for your damages, including back pay and the difference in payment between what you made and what your boss legally should have paid you. A California employment lawyer can help you go up against your employer for violations of the Equal Pay Act.