*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.
California's Equal Pay Act is a piece of legislation that protects workers by mandating that no employer pay any employee at a wage rate less than an employee of a different sex or ethnicity who performs the same work. This act is outlined in the CA Labor Code 1197.5 and Labor Code section 432.3.
Employers are allowed to pay workers differently of course. However, the law specifies that pay differentials cannot be based upon sex, ethnicity or someone being of another protected class. This goes further than just stopping employers from directly attributing their wages based on this; they need to comply in practice, not just name. In other words, businesses can’t pay women less across the board, but then just state that they aren't paying them less because they are women.
For pay differentials, employers must be able to actually prove the source of the discrepancy, not just be taken at their word. Differentials can be for any one of several valid and legal reasons. Valid reasons include pay based on seniority, merit, quality of work, or a bona fide factor such as differences in education, training, certifications or experience.
California is actually very progressive and advanced compared to many other states, in regards to our equal pay protection for protected classes. California has protected this right for years actually, with frequent updates and revisions aimed to promote income-earning opportunities for everyone and reduce the income gap between demographic groups.
Our main equal pay protection law has been in place for decades, since 1963. In this year, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law as part of his New Frontier Program. It was critical for addressing the huge pay disparity between men and women that was significantly more egregious at the time. This first version of the law built upon a foundation of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
Though there are protections at a federal level, California is even more advanced in their protections. Equal Pay legislation in the state had some serious updates and increases to its potency and efficacy in 2015, when CA`s Governor Brown signed it into law. The amendment changed the language of the act to require that employees performing substantially similar work receive equal pay, eliminating the requirement that the employees be working at the same establishment. It also necessitates that employers provide stronger reasoning, of a more restricted range of excuses, to explain any discrepancies in the wage rates between employees performing the same type of work.
It also protects the employees seeking fairer wages directly. The amendment specifically prohibits employers from taking retaliatory actions against employees who seek equal pay. It also guarantees the legal right to discuss their wages; employers cannot legally retaliate against them for speaking freely about wages. They are also not allowed to ban you discussing it with coworkers specifically or asking them what their own wages are. These specifications not only protect the employees but directly increase transparency and accountability. It is much harder for employers to get away with pay disparities if employees are talking and comparing.
There was another amendment in January of 2017 that takes the protection even further. It made it so that employers could no longer cite past salaries as the sole reason for justifying a pay differential. Previously, employers could cite how much someone used to be paid by another employer or while serving another role. Better reasons are necessary to explain current differences.