Lawmakers aim to close the pay gap between women and men

Seven little girls stood in front of a podium at the state Capitol. Each one wore a red t-shirt with a number on it, ranging from 44 to 50. Those numbers showed how old each girl will be when Colorado is expected to close the pay-equity gap between men and women – in 2057.

Colorado women and people of color still lag far behind white men in how much they’re paid. According to the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, white women earn on average about 77 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. For Latinas, it’s 54 cents, and for African-American women, it’s 66 cents.

Colorado lags below the national average on equal pay for equal work.

House Democrats Thursday rolled out a package of bills designed to address the gap under the national banner of “Equal Pay Can’t Wait,” a 20-state effort sponsored by the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive “resource and strategy center” based in Madison, Wisconsin.

The package includes the top priority for House Democrats in 2016: House Bill 16-1001, which would require state contractors to pay men and women equally for the same work. Co-sponsor Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge said the state should lead by example on the issue.

Danielson is also one of the sponsors for a bill, yet to be introduced, on pay transparency. That bill would expand current state law to allow all workers to talk about wages with fellow employees without fear of retribution.

A third bill, sponsored by Reps. Faith Winter of Westminster and Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, would bar employers from asking prospective employees about salary history.

Lily Griego of 9 to 5 Working Women, a women’s advocacy group, knows first-hand what happens when an employer makes a salary decision based on the employee’s salary history. Griego worked for Jefferson County, and said she believes she would have made a salary much closer to male co-workers had her employer not known her salary history.

Because she was paid less, she had to work more jobs, and that came with a cost to her family, home and health.

“It’s reprehensible that we’re still having this conversation in 2016,” said Halisi Vicent of Colorado Black Women for Political Action.

Thursday’s news conference comes on the eve of the seventh anniversary of President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which is supposed to address pay equity issues. But according to Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, the act only addresses a certain group of discriminatory measures and isn’t all-inclusive. “It’s a wonderful law, but it’s only a piece of the machinery” needed to address equal pay issues, he said.

The news conference didn’t include any Republicans, either from the House or Senate. Danielson said Thursday was just the first step, and included community members who have worked together on the pay equity issue for many years. She also pointed out that similar bills have passed in other states with bipartisan support.

Finding GOP support may be a high hurdle to clear. The bills are likely to make it through the Democrat-controlled House but may struggle to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, which last year killed the state’s pay equity commission.

Another hurdle: opposition from business organizations that have blasted similar measures, like last year’s attempt to raise the state’s minimum wage.

Petterson told The Colorado Independent she and her colleagues are working with the business community to address their concerns and to make sure the bills don’t put Colorado businesses in a vulnerable position. Petterson and Winter are putting together a bill that would reward companies that have pay equity policies, which they said could also draw consumer support.

“We have the business community at the table, and have incorporated some of their feedback into these bills,” Winter said.

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