Ensuring Equitable Earnings: Understanding California's Fair Pay Act

Posted by Catherine Chukwueke | Mar 05, 2024

California's Fair Pay Act, also known as Senate Bill 358, revolutionized wage equality upon its enactment on January 1, 2016. This legislation significantly altered California's approach to wage discrimination, particularly gender-based disparities. Key provisions include the requirement for equal pay for employees engaged in "substantially similar work," irrespective of gender, skill, effort, and responsibility.

Defining "Substantially Similar Work"

The Act considers work as "substantially similar" when skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions align. It eliminates the necessity for identical job titles, emphasizing the nature of the work itself.

Legislative Evolution

Since its inception, the Act has undergone yearly amendments. Noteworthy changes include the addition of race and ethnicity as protected categories effective January 1, 2017. The Act, applicable to public employers since January 1, 2018, further addresses salary history inquiries and emphasizes pay scale transparency.

Notable Modifications and Enhancements:

  • Elimination of the "same establishment" requirement for compared employees.
  • Increased difficulty for employers to justify pay disparities through the "bona fide factor other than sex" defense.
  • Ensured application of legitimate factors for pay inequities in a reasonable manner, covering the entire pay difference.
  • Explicit prohibition of retaliation against employees enforcing the law and preventing employers from hindering wage discussions.

Distinguishing Features from the Former Act:

  • Inclusion of race- and ethnicity-based wage differences.
  • Replacement of "equal" work comparison with "substantially similar" work.
  • Strengthened anti-retaliation protections for workers aiding in claims.
  • Prohibition of using an employee's prior salary to justify pay differences.

Defenses Against Equal Pay Claims

Employers must justify pay differentials through factors like seniority, merit, production systems, or a "bona fide factor other than sex, race, or ethnicity." The burden shifts to the employer to prove the reasonableness and entirety of the applied factors.

Extended Scope to Public Employers

Public employers fall under the Act's coverage since January 1, 2018, enabling employees to file claims against them. The Act establishes a timeline for filing claims and considers each unequal paycheck as a separate violation.

Filing a Claim

Employees seeking recourse for Equal Pay Act violations must file claims within two years from the violation date, extending to three years for willful violations. Filing options include the Labor Commissioner's Office or pursuing action in court.

Confidentiality and Remedies

The law ensures the confidentiality of claimants until the validity of the claim is established, with remedies including the recovery of wage differentials, interest, and liquidated damages. The Act places an onus on employers to evaluate substantially similar jobs and maintain records for three years.

Transparency in Recruitment 

Effective January 1, 2023, employers with 15 or more employees must include the pay scale in job postings, fostering transparency in recruitment efforts.

Anti-Retaliation Protections 

The Act explicitly prohibits retaliation against employees who invoke or assist in its enforcement. Any adverse actions taken by employers against such employees are deemed illegal, reinforcing the commitment to a workplace free from retaliatory practices.

Civil Penalties

The Act imposes civil penalties on employers found in violation of California Labor Code section 432.3, ranging from $100 to $10,000 per violation.

Ensuring Pay Equity: Tips for Employers

Employers can implement the following proactive measures to uphold pay equity and comply with California's Fair Pay Act:

  • Conducting regular pay audits is essential to identifying and rectifying any wage disparities that may exist.
  • Promoting transparency through the establishment of clear and unbiased pay scales allows employees to understand their compensation structure.
  • Implementing objective criteria, such as skill, effort, and responsibility, in performance evaluations ensures fair assessments.
  • Encouraging open communication about wages and providing channels for employees to address concerns contributes to a more equitable work environment.
  • Training managers and HR personnel on the Act's provisions is crucial for maintaining compliance.
  • Staying informed about updates to the legislation ensures continued adherence to evolving standards, reinforcing a commitment to fair pay practices within the organization.


California's Fair Pay Act is a robust legal framework designed to eliminate wage disparities and create workplaces that value diversity, ensuring equitable compensation for all. Compliance with California's Fair Pay Act is imperative for employers seeking to foster a workplace that values equality and fairness. Embracing the principles outlined in the Act not only ensures legal adherence but also promotes a positive work environment. By eliminating wage disparities, employers contribute to a more motivated and satisfied workforce. Additionally, upholding the Act's standards helps companies attract and retain top talent, fostering a reputation for fairness and equality. Ultimately, California's Fair Pay Act serves as a crucial guide for employers to champion equitable practices, benefiting both employees and the organizations that prioritize the principles of fairness and inclusivity.

If you have any questions regarding your company's policies or need guidance on California employment law, contact the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke and schedule a consultation. We are here to help you navigate the complexities of employment law with confidence.

Disclaimer: This article has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. 

About the Author

Catherine Chukwueke

Catherine (“Cathy”) Chukwueke is the Owner and Principal Attorney of the Law Office of Catherine Chukwueke, a law firm focusing on labor and employment matters and workplace investigations. Ms. Chukwueke is passionate about helping people who have been mistreated in the workplace.

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