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Employment Law Blog

The Importance of Engaging in a Pay Equity Study

February 4, 2019

Background on the Need for a Pay Equity Study
The recent passage of the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act (the “Act”) amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) to strengthen protections against employment discrimination and to promote equal pay for women and employees in other protected categories. The Act became effective on July 1, 2018. Being proactive under these new strict protections is of the utmost importance. As such, If you are a New Jersey employer, we urge you to engage in a “pay equity study.” The goal of which would be to develop an understanding of the Company’s current pay structures, and to either explain differences in pay among comparable employees or to correct pay differences that cannot be justified. Mandelbaum Salsburg's employment law attorneys stand ready to assist in this capacity.

It is now an unlawful employment practice under the LAD for an employer to pay any employee who is a member of a protected class less than the rate paid to other employees not members of that protected class for “substantially similar work when viewed as a composite of skill, effort and responsibility.” The Act does much more than just advocating gender pay equity. It expands equal pay on the basis of membership in the protected classes of the LAD, to include race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, civil union status, domestic partnership status, affectional or sexual orientation, genetic information, pregnancy or breastfeeding, sex, gender identity or expression, disability or atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait of any individual, or liability for service in the armed forces.

Limited Exceptions
There are very limited exceptions where an employer may pay a different rate of compensation to members of the protected class, including where a pay differential is due to seniority or a merit system. In all pay discrepancies, the employer must demonstrate each of the following:

  1. That the differential is based on one or more legitimate, bona fide factors other than the characteristics of members of the protected class, such as training, education or experience, or the quantity or quality of production;
  2. That the factor or factors are not, and do not perpetuate differential in compensation, based on sex or any other characteristic of members of a protected class;
  3. That each of the factors is applied reasonably;
  4. That one or more of the factors account for the entire wage differential; and
  5. That the factors are job-related with respect to the position in question and based on a legitimate business necessity.

What Exactly is Unlawful?
The Act provides that an unlawful employment practice occurs each time pay practices discriminate against an employee, and the employee can seek back pay for up to six (6) years. In this way the Act substantially lengthens the statute of limitations for claims based on pay equity to beyond the LAD’s normal, two (2) year statute of limitations.

If an employer is found guilty of violating the equal pay practices required by the Act, a judge or jury can award treble damages for the violation. Treble damages are also available to an employee who proves that the employer retaliated against her/him for requesting, discussing, or disclosing to (i) any other employee or former employee of the employer, (ii) a lawyer from whom the employee seeks legal advice, or (iii) any government agency, information regarding employee compensation/pay practices. Likewise, treble damages are available to an employee or prospective employee who is asked by the employer to sign a waiver regarding discussing or disclosing pay practices or rates.

A successful claimant will also be entitled to attorneys’ fees in a practice called “fee shifting.”

For all of these reasons, it is necessary to carefully review Company hiring and compensation practices to insure there is pay equity for employees who perform “substantially similar work” –the so-called pay equity study.

Advantages of a Pay Equity Study
A pay equity study will help your company reduce its potential liability by addressing three questions:

  • Which pay differences are at issue?
  • Whose pay should be compared?
  • What are the factors that explain differences in pay?
Specific and complete answers to the last question are critical. Absent being able to provide valid justifications and cogent explanations, your Company is potentially at great risk. The key challenge in finding these answers comes with the realization that the Company’s historic pay decisions were made one at a time, over an extended period of time and depended upon a variety of factors specific to the time at which they were made. Ultimately, the Company must able to explain and justify the cumulative results of all past pay decisions; a potentially difficult task.

Most companies keep a close eye on some of their pay decisions, such as the grant of merit raises and the starting pay of their positions. Unfortunately, tracking individual decisions are not enough. Although the Act refers specifically to pay decisions, in many cases the inability to reach into the past for data means that differences in existing levels of pay likely will be used to support a prima facie discrimination claim. The Act and other such laws refer directly to equal pay for the same work. Thus, how employees are paid today—not just the pay decisions of yesterday or yesteryear—must be examined and understood fully.

How the Process Works
The pay equity review process begins with comparing the pay of employees who are “similarly situated.” But individuals who are comparable today were not always thus. Given that pay today equals pay at hire plus all subsequent changes in pay, including those that emanate from promotion or transfer, employees that today perform similar work, in the not-so-distant past, may have worked in different jobs, different grades, different units, different locations or even different companies. Knowing this history may lead to better understanding, but this alone will do nothing to protect the Company from sustainable claims.

Differences in knowledge, skill, ability, effort or responsibility provide a legitimate basis for differences in pay among employees doing the same work. However, there are few, if any, direct measures of these factors available, and pay equity studies typically rely on the “usual suspects” to explain pay differences. These include:
  • Responsibility for people.
  • Knowledge.
  • Communication skills.
  • Physical demands.
  • Emotional demands.
  • Mental skills.
  • Initiative.
  • Length of time in job or grade.
  • Part-time status.
  • Physical/geographic location.
  • Company service time.
  • Education.
  • Prior experience (as measured by age or time between leaving school and hire).

Ultimately, Employers will need in-depth information to effectively explain and defend pay differences. Information that can be collected and analyzed through a pay equity study and maintained at the ready include:

  • Work activities: collect information about each job’s actual work activities and responsibilities; this may also include how, why and when the workers perform such activities.
  • Human Behavior: this can include the degree of perception exercised by the employee and other human behaviors such as communicating, judgment and writing and speaking skills.
  • Skilled (or not) use of Machines, Tools, Equipment and Other Work Aids: this could factor in computer use and literacy, knowledge dealt with or applied and services rendered.
  • Job Context: should include such considerations as physical working conditions, work schedule and social factors.
  • Human Requirements: this could include job-related knowledge or skills, education, training and/or work experience, and required personal attributes such as aptitude, physical characteristics, personality and interests.

Two caveats: first, the above factors must be dealt with as objectively as possible and, if capable of measurement, must not be tainted by cognitive bias; second, the law specifically does not permit the perpetuation of past discrimination. Thus, basing a hiring pay offer on previous pay, where such previous pay could be tainted, would only propel discrimination into the future. Employees must be placed into the pay scale in a manner that is rational and disciplined.

Ultimately, the adoption and maintenance of job descriptions is an integral part of a transparent, fair pay system. Having accurate job descriptions makes it much easier to evaluate and grade different jobs – and ensure that employees doing equal work receive equal pay. Job descriptions should follow job evaluation scheme factors. This will make jobs easier to evaluate and help avoid aspects of jobs more commonly performed by women being omitted or undervalued in the evaluation process, compared to those of jobs more commonly carried out by men. To the extent that current job descriptions exist, they should be reviewed as part of the preliminary review.

In addition to job descriptions, the second part of this comprehensive analysis involves the development of Salary Guides for all identified positions. One of the required Affirmative Action Plan reports, the Workforce Analysis, requests that the Company sort the jobs in each Department by wage or salary. Salary Guides are used by many businesses to help managers manage the compensation of new employees and to establish appropriate pay increases for existing employees while maintaining equity among the jobs in the company. Salary Guides provide a structure and logic for fairly compensating employees and managing the Company’s payroll costs.

Mandelbaum Salsburg’s Employment Law Practice can provide assistance and advice and help companies conduct this important survey. Involvement of legal counsel will provide you with necessary expertise and the protection of attorney-client privilege. If engaged, we would be prepared to work with one or more Company executives to review personnel information and compensation data. While it is clear that this process is no easy task; to do nothing (our usual default option) can lead to some very serious consequences. If you wish to learn more or to engage in this process, please contact Gary S. Young at gyoung@lawfirm.ms.

Attorney: Gary Young
Category: Equal Pay Act