By Justin Wingerter
Gov. Jared Polis signed equal pay legislation into law Wednesday, but it won't take effect for another 19 months, leaving Colorado employers with time to limit their legal liability before 2021.
"We are fighting for women to be treated with the dignity, fairness and respect they deserve," said Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, after the governor's bill signing. "This new law is a Colorado solution that strikes a balance between workers and employers."
Senate Bill 85 contained several business-friendly amendments that will safeguard some companies from lawsuits and give them ample time to come into compliance by moving enactment back to Jan. 1, 2021.
The new law allows employees who believe they are being paid less due to their gender to file a lawsuit within two years. Employers found to have paid someone less due to their gender must pay the amount the employee would have made the previous three years if there had not been discrimination.
There is a good-faith exception, however. The law says courts should not award additional payments to employees if the salary disparity was unintentional. It even tells companies how to prove good faith: by completing a thorough pay audit within its workforce in the years before being sued.
Brian Ayers, an employment law attorney with Employers Council, says he is advising workplaces to conduct audits now and rectify any pay disparities before there is legal action. "It's rare when we do one of these pay analyses that you actually find deliberate discrimination or deliberate efforts" to discriminate, he said.
For that reason, the new law's chief achievement may be in forcing employers to rectify gender pay disparities on their own, rather than punishing companies for those disparities. There are also a number of exceptions that allow disparities due to seniority and merit, geographic differences, education, training and experience, or if some employees travel more than others.
Other changes in the law will require smaller adjustments. Job openings must be announced within a workplace and include the position's salary range. Bosses cannot ask a job applicant for their salary history or retaliate against those who refuse to say how much money they have made.
"We are sensing some worry, and a lot of that is because there's a lot in the bill that's not familiar right now for employers," said Ayers. "The biggest source of fear right now is that we don't know what we don't know."
The House passed Senate Bill 85 on April 27 by a party-line vote of 40-21. The Senate passed it three days later by a vote of 21-14 with two Republicans joining all Democrats in favor.
Several Republican women argued that a strong work ethic, not a government mandate, best ensures equal pay. Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, said she doesn't believe women are victims.
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