The Legislature is considering two companion bills HB 1905/SB 5894 by including the definition of “protected classes” to the Equal Pay Act (Act). Currently, only “women” is identified as a protected class under this Act with access to filing complaints with Labor and Industries or civil actions.
WR testified to support the intent of Equal Pay Act and to include protected class because it aligns with the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion principles that guide our operations and advocacy. We expressed concerns, however, regarding the broadness of “protected class” by simply referencing Human Rights Commission (HRC)’s protected class definition to the Act.
For example, the definition for “Disability” includes the presence of a sensory, mental, or physical impairment. Is “sensory” limited to the typical five senses or various neuro-sensitivity issues that are continuing to develop such as tactile difficulty or auditory processing? The definition also includes whether the condition “is perceived to exist whether or not it exists in fact.” This means an employee’s subjective belief that a “claimed disability” condition exists will provide the basis for filing a suit or a complaint regardless of facts.
The American Disability Act requires open interactive communication between employer and employees for accommodation. The definition in this bill means no communication is necessary to help employers know that their employees may be a “protected class.”
To address the lack of clarity concern, WR proposed adopting Oregon’s protected class definition under their Equal Pay Act. Oregon’s protected class definition is “a group of persons distinguished by race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, veteran status, disability or age.” The key word “distinguished by” adds the objective proof requirements for these classes. Using similar definitions for employers who often have employees in both Washington and Oregon will also help with compliance and implementation.
We also requested time for rulemaking to clarify the definition and to provide time for education. WR is pleased that Labor and Industries also made similar requests to delay the effective date to July 1,2025 to provide time for rulemaking and education.