Washington employers will soon have to disclose the starting salary for open positions to job applicants — at the beginning of the recruiting process — if a bill that recently passed both chambers of the state Legislature becomes law.

Under the proposed legislation, employers with 15 or more workers would have to disclose the hourly pay rate or salary, or a range of what they could be, as well as give a general description of benefits and other compensation that could be offered in a job posting.

That’s a change from the current requirements that say an employer must disclose a salary range and benefits only when a job offer has been made — and the applicant asks for it. 

Oftentimes, applicants can’t easily access pay information when they apply for a job, said Sen. Emily Randall, one of the bill’s sponsors. That can create an imbalance among applicants if some candidates have a connection at the company that can shed light on what the employer is willing to offer, or if they have past experience negotiating a higher pay rate.

Women, people of color and other individuals from historically underrepresented groups are more likely to be missing those pieces to effectively negotiate a higher pay rate, said Randall, a Bremerton Democrat.

“I’ve never been a business owner, but I have hired a number of people,” she said at a public hearing in February. “I always know what we’re able to pay ahead of time. I have an idea what the range is.

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“For us to be transparent about that is a pay equity issue.” 

The legislation defines a job posting as the solicitations the employer uses to recruit new workers, whether that’s through a third-party recruiter, a printed hard copy announcing the position or a posting to a digital job board. Any posting that includes qualifications expected of applicants would also need to include salary information. 

Employers would be held to the same standards when workers apply for new positions or promotions within the same company. Postings for internal transfers would also need to include a wage scale or salary range.

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The House passed the legislation, Senate Bill 5761, Tuesday after the Senate moved it forward in February. The Senate is reviewing slight changes made to the bill by the lower chamber. If it passes, the law will go into effect in January 2023.

Already, the legislation has drawn criticism from trade groups advocating for business owners. Bob Battles, the director of government affairs at the Association of Washington Business, said the bill would be “cumbersome” for small employers. Bruce Beckett, a lobbyist with the Washington Retail Association, said it could lead to unintended consequences for job seekers if their past salary is listed on a job posting that future employers can easily track down. 

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Based on the legislation’s definition of “posting,” it’s clear employers wouldn’t have to include a salary range on “help wanted” signs hanging on their window, said Jim King, from the Independent Business Association. But he’s less clear about what counts as a qualification. Does a flyer for an “experienced” line cook need to include salary? 

“We’re trying to keep this as simple as we can” for small business owners, King said, adding that he felt the head count number determining whether employers would be required to disclose pay information should be higher. An amendment to increase that threshold from 15 to 50 employees failed to pass the House.

Advocates of the legislation say it builds on past work around pay equity, like banning employers from asking job candidates about their salary history.

For Cher Scarlett, a software engineer from Kirkland who testified at a public hearing in support of the bill, the legislation is a way to ensure she and her colleagues aren’t missing out on compensation they could be getting, if only they knew to ask. 

Scarlett has led a charge to bring attention to allegations of pay disparities and gender discrimination at companies including Apple, Starbucks and Activision Blizzard. She has launched a wage survey at Apple to study worker salaries around the country and investigate anecdotal evidence of a wage gap.

In her own past jobs, Scarlett said her salary has been depressed because employers asked for her salary expectations, rather than disclosing how much they could offer. She’s not in a position to negotiate, she said. In need of a steady income, she can’t risk losing an opportunity.

“We deserve to get paid what we’re worth,” Scarlett said. “And we deserve to know what that value is.”