The state Senate took aim at the generations-old practice of pay discrimination by passing legislation today on behalf of employees who are paid differently, based on gender, from workplace counterparts who do the same work with the same experience.

“When I first began fighting for pay equality in 2013, people asked me, ‘Is this still a problem?’ ” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver. “What they didn’t realize is that while the Equal Pay Act of 1943 called for equal pay between men and women for comparable work, the reality is that society has not caught up. Today women earn an average of 76 cents on the dollar compared to men with the same experience doing the same work.”

House Bill 1506, companion legislation to Cleveland’s Senate Bill 5140, modifies the Equal Pay Act to prohibit discrimination in compensation and provides remedies, including damages and civil penalties assessed by the state Department of Labor & Industries, and civil action brought by an employee. The bill would also provide protections for employees who are offered unequal workplace opportunities based on gender and prohibits employers from requiring employees not to discuss their wages with each other.

In 2017, Cleveland inserted a proviso into the state’s operating budget to extend protections to employees who work for vendors that contract with six Washington state agencies; this legislation extends those protections to employees of all businesses that operate in Washington state.

Cleveland pointed out that many women, including and especially women of color, earn even less than the 76-cent average for women overall, necessitating stronger enforcement at the state level. She further noted that the legislation is supported by a majority of citizens across Washington state.

“Reality has lagged behind the equal pay law for the better part of a century,” Cleveland said. “It’s time to make pay equity a reality so that our children and grandchildren don’t have to fight these same battles.”

Twenty-three other states already offer protections for employees who are paid less on the basis of gender. This bill would make Washington the second state in the nation, after Maryland, to provide protections for employees who are offered lesser opportunities in a workplace based on gender.

“When people doing the same work are compensated unequally, it’s not just the employee who is short-changed; it’s everyone in that employee’s household,” Cleveland said. “And this discrepancy reverberates throughout the larger community, as smaller paychecks lead to a smaller tax base and less economic vitality.”

The legislation includes administrative remedies to help small business owners resolve complaints without being tied up in court. It is a key component of Senate Democrats’ “Putting People First” agenda of passing family-friendly legislation that has been blocked by Senate Republicans in recent years.

Since the bill passed the House but was amended in the Senate, the differences in the two versions must be reconciled before it can be sent to the governor to be signed into law.