DC Council Seeks to Address Wage Gap

A bill presented to the Washington, D.C. Council aims to prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their wage history, a provision intended to combat the wage gap between men and women working in the District.

The Fair Wage Amendment Act of 2016, which is currently under council review, lists 11 of the 13 D.C. councilmembers as co-sponsors. If passed, D.C. would join Massachusetts, the only state in the nation that prohibits employers from asking job applicants about salary history.

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the bill on Sept. 20, saying it would help D.C. residents get the salaries they deserve for the work they do, regardless of their gender. According to a report released by the National Partnership for Women and Families in April of this year, women in D.C. make 90 cents for every dollar men make. The wage disparity is even more evident in the District’s minorities, with African-American women making 56 cents and Hispanic women making 50 cents to every dollar made by white men.

“Historically, what we’ve seen happen is that the wage gap between genders is exacerbated and continued, because, if someone asks a woman what her salary was at her former job, it’s often lower than what it should have been,” Grosso said.

Grosso said he introduced the bill to further efforts in Washington to reduce gender pay inequality.

“I spent a big part of my career trying to create a society where everyone is treated with respect, and everyone is treated equally,” Grosso said.

Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor Director of Research Joseph McCartin, explained that, without this provision in place, employers can ask prospective employees what they were paid at their last job before making an offer. This then allows the employer to offer the lowest wage they think the employee will accept rather than what the employee’s labor is actually worth.

“When employers know what workers earn, they have a little bit of an advantage in the labor market, in terms of setting prices,” McCartin said.

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Director of Research Jeff Strohl said there are a number of subtle factors also perpetuating wage gaps during a job search. The discrimination, he said, is not necessarily intentional.

“There are a lot of ways wage gaps can continue, especially during job interviews,” Strohl said. “Men are more likely to inflate their previous wages — if they made $65,000 at their last firm, they’ll claim they made $70,000. Women are less likely to do that.”

McCartin said this bill, if it passes, will build on other recent workers’ rights legislation passed by the council.

“Simply this provision alone won’t solve the problem, but it’s a help,” McCartin said. “But you need to match that with the other things that the council has tried to do, which is raise the minimum wage to something more like a living wage.”

Three months before Grosso introduced the Fair Wage Amendment Act, the D.C. Council made headlines by passing a bill gradually increasing D.C.’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.

McCartin said the District’s recent legislative push has compensated for a lack of leadership on the federal level.

“The cost of living has increased in recent years, but the federal minimum wage has stuck,” McCartin said. “The federal minimum wage is no longer anything like a living wage, so what has had to happen is that localities have had to step into the breach. Cities have stepped up and tried to enact wage laws, like D.C. has done, to rectify the problem.”

Justin McCartney (SFS ’19), a student involved with the Center for Social Justice, said the bill addresses the problem of wage inequality head-on.

“You hear a lot of talk about how it’s important to close the wage gap in presidential campaigns, but [this amendment] actually takes action to do it,” McCartney said. “I think that’s really important.”

McCartney stressed the importance of Georgetown students engaging themselves in issues of gender and racial equity.

“There’s a sociological disconnect between Georgetown students and their experience for four years or longer in Georgetown versus the whole broader community of D.C.,” McCartney said. “Students being educated and aware that awesome initiatives like this are being worked out in local government is super important.”

Councilmember Grosso said that the D.C. Council always benefits from a student perspective, particularly on a bill that could be relevant to Georgetown students pursuing careers in the District.

“Anytime I can get more engagement from students in the District of Columbia, and, certainly, from Georgetown students, it’s a big help here at the legislative offices at the D.C. Council,” Grosso said. “The fact is: Engagement from students gives us a different perspective that I think we can use more of.”

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