Lawsuits under the Revised Equal Pay Act are Out of the Gate Quickly

Well, that didn’t take long.

On the first business day that amendments to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act were in effect, the first lawsuit was filed in Boston, according to published reports. It was brought by a female flutist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra who claims she was paid less than a male oboist, who also is part of the BSO’s woodwind section. According to the suit, the plaintiff has suffered wage discrimination for years because her work playing flute is comparable to her male counterpart’s work playing oboe. Regardless how the case turns out, it stands as yet another warning to employers who have yet to consider the effects that the revised Equal Pay Act will have on their businesses.

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The day that amendments to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act went into effect, a female flutist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought forward a lawsuit.

The primary change to the Act, which has been around for decades, involves the comparison between male and female workers. That required showing was until now virtually impossible to make. The Equal Pay Act now makes it far easier for plaintiffs. The law as revised provides that employers may not discriminate in the payment of wages between men and women in “comparable” jobs – those that require substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and are performed under similar conditions.

What this means is open to interpretation, leaving the courts to deal with pay discrimination claims one at a time and employers to worry about whether their practices pass muster. With steep potential damages and only a narrow set of viable excuses for unequal pay between the genders, employers need to consider avoidance options quickly. The law provides for a safe haven of sorts for companies that perform self-evaluations and make progress toward addressing illegal pay disparities before a suit is filed. While the conditions under which this makes sense are up for debate – it may not be a useful exercise for all companies – employers who fail to consider that option and others do so at their own peril.

Massachusetts High Court Clarifies that Sick Leave is not Wages

Though most employment lawyers never thought of accrued sick leave benefits as a wage, it took only one, armed with a big enough sick leave balance, to test the question in Massachusetts’ highest legal venue. To the surprise of few, the law left the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the same form lawyers and lower court judges have long interpreted it. While accrued sick leave remains a benefit that employers now need to provide under Massachusetts law, it is not a wage that must be paid to departing employees who have accrued it on the company’s books.

The case’s high stakes lend a clue as to why it went as far as it did. At issue was $46,755 in accrued sick leave under a plan at the Massachusetts Port Authority. Though the benefits were ultimately paid to the employee, the check was cut about a year after he retired due to an arbitration proceeding that ultimately went his way. Under the Massachusetts Wage Act, wages due to employees must be paid promptly at departure from employment. The Plaintiff pressed a theory that this provision of the law was broken by the late payment and that he was consequently entitled to three times the amount of  accrued sick pay owed, plus reimbursement for all legal fees he incurred to collect his pay.

The SJC would have none of it, however. It cited to the Act’s definition of the term “wages,” which includes holiday pay, vacation pay and earned commissions but does not mention sick leave benefits. The court then contrasted the purposes of sick and vacation leave policies, noting that only the latter could be used for any purpose. Sick leave generally is not wages as a result, the court concluded, and could not be considered a wage under Massport’s specific policy of paying out accrued, unused sick leave under some circumstances. Those conditions made sick time at Massport a “contingent bonus,” such that it like other bonuses is not a wage covered by the Wage Act.

The case is Mui v. Massachusetts Port Authority, decided January 29, 2018.