Gov. Tom Wolf signs an executive order to address the gender wage gap.

HARRISBURG — By this fall, state agencies under Gov. Tom Wolf’s jurisdiction will no longer ask job applicants about their salary history.

The governor, flanked by legislators and advocates for women at the state capitol today, touted the move as a small step in a big fight for gender pay equity in Pennsylvania. Women in the commonwealth make 21 cents less per dollar than men, according to an analysis by the National Partnership for Women & Families. Those numbers are even bleaker for women of color.

Asking about salary history “traps women in a cycle of being underpaid, causing them to disclose previous wages which may have been significantly lower than they should have been,” Wolf said. “It just perpetuates the cycle.”

The executive order Wolf signed today applies to management-level and non-union positions in agencies under his jurisdiction.

That encompasses more than 13,000 filled positions and 2,189 open ones, according to the governor’s spokesperson.

Wolf also backed several bills from Democrats that would strengthen the state’s equal pay law. Most notable is a proposal from state Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County that would ban Pennsylvania businesses from asking prospective employees about salary history.

“It’s gonna be a heavy lift,” Schwank said when asked about bipartisan support. “I know that going into it. … But if we don’t talk about these things then we will never get a chance. That’s where I’m coming from on this.”

At the local level

Wolf’s action follows steps in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to close the gender pay gap.

Pittsburgh City Council last year passed a bill, introduced by then-Councilman Dan Gilman, that prohibited agencies, departments, and divisions under the local government umbrella from asking about salary history. Tim McNulty, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the law has since been implemented and the question has been removed from applications.

That’s as far as Pittsburgh can go at the moment. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the second-class city (a designation based on population) cannot regulate the “duties, responsibilities or requirements” of private businesses.

Because of Philadelphia’s unique home rule status, the city of the first class has more power over its local affairs than other municipalities. That’s how Philly was able to implement a paid sick leave law that applied to most workers, while Pittsburgh has thus far been stymied by the courts.

But home rule hasn’t prevailed (so far) for a Philadelphia ordinance that banned all businesses from asking about salary history.

A federal court struck down the law earlier this year in response to a suit from the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. While Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg lauded the law as a “significant positive attempt to address the wage gap,” he concluded that it violated the First Amendment.

Philadelphia is appealing the decision, and parties from both sides recently met for a settlement conference, according to court records.

Neither the city nor a chamber representative could be reached for comment.

Schwank knows her bill — if it somehow became law — could also face legal challenges. She said she’s spoken to the governor’s office about ways to safeguard against that and noted that several other states have successfully banned salary-history questions.

Can you pass my bills?

Here are the four pay gap bills Wolf backed today:

  • House Bill 1243, Reps. Tina Davis and Brian Sims: “Employee protection is increased in the areas of discrimination, wrongful termination of employment, and anti-retaliation when an employee has filed a complaint against an employer.”
  • House Bill 931, Reps. Donna Bullock and Maria Donatucci: “[Allows] employees the ability to inquire about wages and disclose information about wages, and … [prohibits] retaliatory actions against workers who discuss or file a complaint regarding pay inequities.”
  • To-be-introduced bill, Sen. Christine Tartaglione: “Clarifies the definition of ‘wages’ and other compensation, and defines ‘comparable work’ as work that requires similar skill, effort, and responsibility.”
  • To-be-introduced bill, Sen. Judy Schwank: Prohibits employers from asking about pay history and from preventing employees to discuss their wages.

Sarah Anne Hughes is based in Harrisburg for The Incline and Billy Penn as the sites’ first-ever state capitol reporter and is a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a new initiative that seeks...