Colorado’s Equal Pay Law: More Than Only Equal Pay
By: Mr. David Bashford, Esq.
Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act was effective January 1, 2021. The foundation element of the law prohibits pay differentials between male and female employees that perform substantially similar work. Because many dental teams tend to be predominantly female, you may have paid little attention to the new law, thinking that you do not have male and female employees who perform the same job. Fair enough. The law, however, goes beyond equal pay. The following is a reminder of the other requirements that all employers in Colorado, regardless of size or industry, must satisfy.
1. You may not request or rely on pay history in setting employee compensation. The days of asking prospective employees what they earned at their last job or asking candidates to fill out an application that includes compensation history are over. Instead, the law requires that you include the wage range in every job posting. For example, if you are looking for a new dental assistant, the position posting would show that the hourly wage ranges from $15 to $25. Make sure that the posted range is reflective of reality. If an auditor reviewed what you are actually paying dental assistants, will they sit in that $15 to $25 per hour range? Compensation discussions with prospective employees are all about
confirming that they are aware of the posted range and, at some point, what your offer is to that candidate within the posted range.
2. All open positions must be posted internally, and that internal posting must also include the wage range. For example, if you would like to hire a new dentist, then you would post that position internally as well as externally through your usual channels. Yes, every one of your employees will now know what the new dentist will be paid. For that matter, every one of your employees will know what everyone is earning as you post open positions. By the way, they already know. You are kidding yourself if you think that your employees do not discuss compensation. As an aside, any employee may apply for the open position. Your new dental assistant may apply for the dentist opening. Treat internal candidates in the same manner that you treat external candidates. The new dental assistant would not even get an interview because s/he lacks the necessary education and licensure.
3. You may not take any steps to prevent or discourage an employee from discussing pay and you may not retaliate against an employee if they do. No, your payroll or human resources manager may not broadcast everyone’s pay, which would breach confidentiality requirements associated with that position. Employees are free, however, standing around the autoclave, to
A few words about job descriptions. Please be sure that you have a job description for each position in the practice. A job description serves several important purposes. A good job description lets people know what the job entails. Simple enough. The job description also forms the basis upon which requests for accommodation, under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Colorado equivalent, are analyzed. Job descriptions form one basis upon which an equal pay audit groups employees for purposes of comparison. If an employee is terminated for poor performance, the job description is a handy reference if that termination needs to be defended. If you decide not to hire someone because they are not qualified, the job description is the go-to if the candidate challenges your decision.
What makes a good job description? It should contain the following elements:
- The position title.
- The classification: full-time or part-time, exempt or non-exempt. If exempt, state the basis for the exemption.
- The wage range.
- The essential functions and duties of the job.
Essential functions, duties, and qualifications do not include personality traits. Stick to the objective duties and qualifications. A hygienist, for example, performs prophylaxis and takes x-rays. A sunny disposition and great sense of humor may be nice, and you can gauge that during the hiring process, but they are not essential duties. A license to practice in Colorado is a qualification. Three years of experience is a qualification. The ability to remain positive is not. Remember, the job description is a source of information for candidates and employees, and an important legal reference as you make compensation, classification, hiring and firing decisions. In turn, a job description is an important tool should personnel decisions ever need to be justified or defended. Stick to the objective and avoid the subjective.
A couple final thoughts. Keep job descriptions concise. Most fit on one page. Ask employees that are actually performing a particular job to review the applicable description. Things get awkward in a hurry if, in defending an action, an employee, when asked, notes the job description is not reflective of the actual work performed day-to-day.
What if you do have male and female employees that share a job description? Male and female dentists, for example, hygienists or assistants.
Under the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, the wage/salary rate is defined as total compensation, which means that you are not comparing just
the base wage or base salary. Include bonus or incentive compensation, contributions to benefits, and other remuneration, together with base earnings, to arrive at total compensation. If there is a difference, and, in particular, if the male employee is earning more than the female employee, the critical inquiry is to understand why. You must be able to demonstrate that the reason for the disparity is not gender.
For example, is the difference reasonably related to education, training or experience. A fresh out of school female dentist that joins a practice and is working to build her own patient base probably does earn less than the male twenty-year veteran in the same practice that is constantly booked twelve weeks out. If compensation is production-based, and the male employee is more productive than the female employee, it makes sense that the male employee earns more. Make sure, however, that the female employee enjoys an equal opportunity to produce.
If challenged, you must be able to demonstrate that the only basis for the disparity is permissible. The statute is explicit. A formal seniority system, a formal merit system, production, geographic location, related education, training, experience. You must be able to demonstrate the complete lack of an impermissible factor, such as pay history or gender. In other words, if an employee demonstrates that gender is also a factor, you lose.
The statute defines gender as self-identified, which may or may not be birth gender. No, you should not poll employees and ask them to identify their gender. Do, however, be generally aware and respectful of how employees self-identify and use that gender identity when performing the equal pay analysis.
As with most legislation, Colorado’s equal pay law contains some nuance and it is new, which means much will be learned over the coming months as the law is tested and regulations refined. Don’t miss the easy stuff. Job postings, no wage history and job descriptions. If you have questions or concerns, seek the advice of good counsel.
This article is intended as general guidance and not as legal advice.
Dr. Sampada Deshpande is a general dentist based in Seattle. A foreign-trained dentist from India, Sampada earned her DDS from the University of Washington in 2018, where she is also a current LEND trainee. Outside of clinical dentistry, she enjoys hosting the New Dentist Business Club, going on hikes with her husband, and reading books on Finance & Management. You can reach her directly at @dr.deshpande on Instagram or visit her website www.sampadadeshpandedds.com for more information.