An Employee’s Right to Equal Pay
California and Federal laws generally prohibit an employer from paying its employees less than the rates paid to employees of the opposite sex. This applies when the employees’ jobs require substantially similar work, when considering their skill, effort, and responsibility, and are performed under similar working conditions. (Cal. Labor Code section 1197.5.) As an example, an employer would not be permitted to pay a female secretary less than a male secretary working in the same office and performing the same job duties. To do so would violate the equal pay laws.
Exceptions to the Equal Pay Rule
While prohibiting wage discrimination, the equal pay laws, do not prevent employers from compensating employees of the opposite sex differently for legitimate reasons, including based on a seniority system, a merit system, a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production, or another system based on any bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training, or experience. In other words, an employer can still reward its employees for good work performance without violating the equal pay laws. To qualify for an exception, it is the employer’s burden to prove that a wage disparity is based on a legitimate reason entirely unrelated to the sex of the respective employees.
Prohibition against Retaliation by Employer
Under California law, an employer is prohibited from retaliating or discriminating against an employee in any way for enforcing his or her rights under the equal pay laws. An employer also cannot prevent an employee from disclosing his or her own wages, discussing the wages of other employees, inquiring about the wages of other employees, or assisting or encouraging other employees to exercise their rights under the equal pay laws.
An Employee’s Remedies for Wage Discrimination
Wage discrimination is viewed as a very serious matter in California, which is reflected in the remedies available to an aggrieved employee. An employee who was the victim of wage discrimination in violation of the equal pay laws is entitled to recover the wages he or she lost due to the discrimination, plus interest. The employee is also entitled to recover an additional equal amount from the employer as liquidated damages. For example, this means that an employee who was deprived of $15,000 in wages due to his or her employer’s violation of the equal pay laws would be entitled to recover the unpaid $15,000 with interest, plus an additional $15,000 with interest, for a total recovery in excess of $30,000. In the event a law suit is necessary to recover these damages, an employee may also be entitled to an award of attorney’s fees. An employee who was subjected to retaliation for enforcing the right to equal pay may also be entitled to reinstatement and reimbursement for lost wages and work benefits resulting from the retaliation.
Wage discrimination is a serious matter that should not be overlooked by California employers or employees. California employers should be cognizant of the applicable laws when setting a pay scale for its employees. Similarly, California employees should be aware of their rights to equal pay and when those rights have been violated. When in doubt, it is important to consult with an experienced employment attorney.