MONTCLAIR – Starting on the first day of 2020, employers in New Jersey can no longer ask prospective workers about their salary history.

The new law was signed Thursday by Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who is acting governor until Aug. 7 while Gov. Phil Murphy is overseas on vacation. It is designed to promote equal pay and gender equity by making it less likely a company lowballs an applicant based on that person’s prior salary.

Oliver said salaries should be determined by qualifications, expertise, experience and ability.

“Often the question comes before the interview is over: What did you make at your last job? And the asking of that question is discriminatory in nature,” Oliver said. “We know that the reason this wealth gap exists in our country, and in our state as well, is because of practices such as this.”

In January 2018, Murphy’s first executive order as governor banned state government from asking applicants about their salary history. He then signed an equal-pay law in April 2018 that Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action, calls the strongest in the country.

“Another major victory for women, minorities and working families who are struggling to achieve equality in the workplace and economic security,” she said. “This new law will give working women and people of color the ability to escape and erase the past effects of wage discrimination that has disadvantaged them and to start anew with fair pay when seeking a new job.”

The National Partnership for Women and Families, comparing median salaries for men and women in New Jersey with full-time year-round jobs, says women are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. For every dollar paid to white men, black women are paid 58 cents, Hispanic women are paid 43 cents and Asian women are paid 87 cents, the group said.

The partnership said statistical analysis shows that 62% of the wage gap can be attributed to differences in occupation and industry, experience and education and factors such as race, region and unionization. But 38% can’t be accounted for, meaning it’s likely due to discrimination and bias, and that the wage gap is present regardless of industry, occupation or education level.

“The wage gap between African-American workers and white workers is larger today than it was in 1979,” said state Sen. Nia Gill, D-Essex.

Assemblywoman Joann Downey, D-Monmouth, said people should be getting paid what they’re worth.

“Pay equity was wonderful. We needed pay equity first,” Downey said. “But once we got pay equity, this is the tool. Because how are you going to make people do the right thing, right? Well, this is one of those things that kind of makes them do the right thing.”

An employer who violates the new law can be fined $1,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation and $10,000 for subsequent violations.

An employer won’t be penalized for considering salary history if an applicant voluntarily provides it. Employers can also ask to confirm an applicant’s salary history after a job offer has been made.

The bill, A1094, passed 53-24 with two abstentions in the Assembly in March and 26-9 in June in the Senate. Then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed an earlier version of the bill in 2017.

Oliver said “it’s going to take a very long time” for the equal-pay efforts to eliminate the gender and racial pay gaps, in part because employers and human-resources professionals will have to adjust.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of selling and telling,” Oliver said. “It’s going to take time until it’s institutionalized. But at least by raising up public awareness, people now know that just like you can’t ask a woman in an interview: ‘Are you going to get married? Are you going to get pregnant?’ this will be institutionalized as one of those questions you can’t ask.”

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