California Forum

Paying women less than men for substantially similar work is wage theft

‘It is time to close the gap.’ Jennifer Siebel Newsom launches campaign for equal pay

First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom launches a campaign to narrow the gender pay gap in California on the east steps of the state Capitol on Monday, April 1, 2019. She’s leading the Equal Pay California campaign alongside Time’s Up.
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First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom launches a campaign to narrow the gender pay gap in California on the east steps of the state Capitol on Monday, April 1, 2019. She’s leading the Equal Pay California campaign alongside Time’s Up.

On April 1, I joined with First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and TIME’S UP to launch #EqualPayCA, a campaign to raise awareness about the gender pay gap and California’s commitment to closing it.

Thirteen companies signed onto our pledge to do the internal work needed—specifically an annual pay equity audit—to ensure they are paying women the same as men for substantially similar work. The #EqualPayCA campaign commends these companies for doing the right thing.

Gender pay equity is about eliminating disparities between women and men. It is about fairness. And it is also about fighting poverty. In California, paying women less is a form of wage theft. The law also prohibits paying someone less for substantially similar work on the basis of race or ethnicity.

What makes California’s pay equity law particularly significant is that it does not require proof of discrimination or intent. Like employers who fail to pay their workers minimum wage or do not pay overtime, paying women less for substantially similar work denies women the fundamental promise of a just day’s pay for a hard day’s work.

What is wage theft? Anytime a worker is not paid what she is entitled to, she is a victim of wage theft.


Since January alone, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office has recovered nearly $7 million on behalf of Bay Area restaurant workers who were not paid minimum wage and overtime.

In February, the Labor Commissioner’s Office issued a citation for $12 million to a construction contractor for 1,000 workers who helped to build hotels, apartments, and mix-used buildings in Los Angeles and on payday, received checks that bounced.

Across California, our investigations have similarly found unpaid wages affecting janitors, residential care workers, garment workers, and farmworkers, and we have held the employers who profit from the abuse accountable.

These outcomes demonstrate that wage theft doesn’t pay.

Denying workers their hard-earned wages strips employees of their ability to provide for themselves, to put a roof over their heads, and to feed and clothe their families.

Julie Su

Similarly, employers who pay women less than their male counterparts are taking money out of the pockets of women and in turn, families and communities. If the wage gap were closed in California, women could pay for about 48 weeks of food for their families, and more than three additional months of mortgage and utility payments, and an astounding nine additional months of child care.

Since its passage, women have come forward to file claims under the Fair Pay Act—women who love their work and want to continue working for their employer, but are fed up with getting paid less than men doing the same job.

In one case, the Labor Commissioner’s Office helped a woman get a raise. She continued working for her employer, but now with dignity. This outcome illustrates the benefits to a single worker and her family, and to her co-workers who enjoy more equity in the workplace and employer who benefits from retention and higher morale.

Wage theft in any form harms not only its direct victims. It tells employees they are not valued. It creates unfair competition with law-abiding employers. It decreases purchasing power, which lowers the amount of consumer dollars spent in communities that often need it the most. And in the end, it’s not just about money. Wage theft strips us all of the dignity of work.

We urge more employers to step up: Sign the Pledge in partnership with the Office of the First Partner, commit to conducting annual company-wide gender pay analyses, review hiring and promotion processes to reduce unconscious and structural barriers, and identify and promote other best practices to reduce this pernicious form of wage theft.

We know that the path forward requires action on all of our parts. But we also know that California sets the standard, we do not settle, and we must eradicate wage theft in all its forms.

Julie Su is California Labor Secretary, She wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.