Politics

Patricia Arquette puts a spotlight on how California's new equal-pay law will affect Hollywood

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) had been working on a bill to strengthen California's equal-pay laws for months when she tuned in to this year's Academy Awards presentation and saw Patricia Arquette use her speech after winning the Oscar for best supporting actress to call for an end to the pay gap between men and women.

"To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America," Arquette said during the telecast.  

Jackson rushed to introduce SB 358 two days later to feed off the momentum created by Arquette's speech, and it was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October. So it seemed only natural that she would turn to Arquette on Tuesday to promote the bill before it becomes law Friday.

SB 358, which supporters have dubbed the toughest such law in the nation, applies to all employees in the California workforce, from hotel workers to Silicon Valley executives. The gender gap in Hollywood has become a prime example of the national wage-gap issue.

In particular, last year's leak of internal Sony emails revealed that actress Jennifer Lawrence was paid 7% of the profits from the 2013 film "American Hustle" while her costar Bradley Cooper and two other male costars each earned 9% each. 

Speaking to a throng of reporters inside the North Hollywood Amelia Earhart Regional Library, Arquette said Tuesday that the Lawrence example shows that the power brokers in the entertainment industry, from agents to executives, need to address gender inequality. 

Pay for top actors is subject to negotiations, but the new law will mean that studios may have to provide data such as a star's awards and previous box-office performance to explain pay differences. 

"In general, they are going to have to make a radical readjustment, and they know that because they know for decades they have been paying unfairly," Arquette said of film and television industry executives. "When I spoke out, it wasn't really about acting so much, but it will have to be addressed, like all of these other things across the board."  

Jackson cited studies that found that in 2014, California women earned an average of 84 cents for every dollar men earned. The gap is even larger for women of color in this state: Latinas make 44 cents for every dollar earned by white men, the largest gap in the nation. 

"This is what is happening to women whether they make $10 million for a movie or they make $10 an hour," Jackson said. "Women are not being paid the fair value of their work and that is the problem and that is what needs to change."

The new law requires that male and female employees performing "substantially similar" work be paid equal wages, regardless of their job titles or the location where they work.

Previously, the law had a narrower standard that ensured equal pay only for "equal" work, meaning that a plaintiff had to have the exact same job to have a claim. 

Under the new law, a female worker who cleans hotel rooms, for example, may challenge higher wages paid to a male janitor who cleans the hallways, despite the different job titles.    

The law also includes an anti-retaliation clause, which allows employees to ask about and discuss co-workers' wages without fear of punishment. Wage differences between male and female employees must be attributed to merit, seniority or other empirical data tied to business.

Employees can file a complaint with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement or file a lawsuit directly through the California Superior Court.  

"If women know that they cannot be fired because they found out that they are being paid less than their male counterparts, that is really important," Jackson said. "That is going to blow up this culture of secrecy." 

Standing next to Jackson, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), Arquette added a dab of Hollywood spectacle to the low-key news conference in a library meeting room.

At one point, a television reporter asked Arquette if her agent was "drooling" over negotiating her next role because of the bill.   

"This was never about me. ... This was never about actresses," she said of her involvement in the issue. "If you had the Sony hack but it was in the dot-com business instead or if it was the medical field or if it was anything, you would see this pay inequality."  

Arquette said she was inspired to speak out in part because of her Oscar-winning role as a single mother struggling to get by while raising two kids in last year's groundbreaking film "Boyhood," which was shot over 12 years.

Noreen Farrell, executive director of civil rights organization Equal Rights Advocates, which co-sponsored the bill, recalled watching the Oscars presentation the night Arquette won and saying, "I hope those Hollywood women just give them hell tonight." She thanked Arquette for her speech. 

"It has been so galvanizing," she said.  

Arquette, for her part, made sure to include references to the role of race in her remarks, specifically noting that women of color, lesbians and transgender people face higher rates of poverty in the U.S. She had been criticized for remarks she made after her speech that singled out straight white women as the group she was advocating for.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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