The State House in Augusta, as seen from Capital Park.

Despite recent efforts by Republican state senators to muddle the issue of gender pay equity, it remains a clear-cut issue. In Maine, it is illegal for an employer to pay one worker less than another for the same work. However, pay disparity between men and women continues to persist in our state. We hear every day from individuals who find out they’re paid less than their male counterparts, even in 2019. Our elected officials should do everything in their power to listen to their constituents and close that gap.

Instead, it seems these legislators prefer to patronize women and tell them why they should be content with what they have. Not only is Sen. Stacey Guerin’s dismissal of the Maine Women’s Lobby Education Fund’s Pay Equity Education Project disappointing, she provides a misleading defense of legislators who have actively fought against policies that would help close the gender pay gap in her Nov. 14 column in the Bangor Daily News.

Women and children have experienced growth in Maine, which can be directly attributed to the minimum wage increase that Mainers overwhelmingly voted for at the ballot box in 2016. Maine’s voter-approved minimum wage increase led to the fastest wage hike for low-income Mainers and lifted around 10,000 children out of poverty in one year.

Let’s dig into the data a little bit more. Three OpEds pushing back against the Education Fund’s work to advance pay equity in Maine, penned by three Senate Republicans this month, reference the Maine Children’s Alliance’s 2019 KIDS COUNT data, which attributes Maine’s steep decline in childhood poverty in large part to the minimum wage increase. But, the report adds, “Despite this, Maine’s child poverty rate is still higher than all the other New England states, except Rhode Island. Even with these gains, 35,000 Maine children are still living in poverty. … Many of these children were living in households headed by single mothers who did not experience the same economic gains as other family types recently did.”

What better way to support primary and sole wage earners, many of them women, than by passing policies that work to break down this systemic problem with deep roots in relying on traditional gender roles to determine the value of a woman’s work.

Following the leadership of Sen. Cathy Breen, the Maine Senate prevented this bad practice from continuing by passing “ An Act Regarding Pay Equality.” This law bans employers from inquiring about a job candidate’s past salary. Asking for past salaries is not necessary for an employer seeking to hire based on experience, education and the position’s requirements. It only allows for pay disparities and discrimination to follow a person indefinitely throughout their career.

This law isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s a meaningful step in ensuring workers are paid a fair wage regardless of how much they were paid in the past. It ensures that all businesses are playing by the same rules and makes sure that they are paying all their workers a fair market value.

Further, this isn’t “feel good” legislation as some have called it. Prohibiting the practice of using prior wages to shape future job offers is an important step toward ensuring pay equity and transparency. It is also an important step toward putting power, and hard-earned wages, back into the hands of working Mainers.

The OpEd from Guerin points to broader issues in the discussion of pay equity. Politicians often paint women as “special interest groups,” who are looking for handouts versus a hand up. They tell us we should be happy with how much better we have it now. But the truth is, if we don’t discuss the gender pay gap and educate our communities on its effects, we can never hope to end it.

Mainers understand the value of hard work and know that value has nothing to do with gender. Despite that, a gender pay gap exists. Maine has taken a step in the right direction by banning questions about salary history. By stopping this bad practice, we are moving toward equal pay for equal work.

Whitney Parrish is the policy and programs director at the Maine Women’s Lobby.