It’s nobody’s beeswax how much money you earn

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A bill in Springfield would prohibit companies from asking job seekers how much they currently earn. The practice, critics say, perpetuates a gender divide in salaries. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

Follow @csteditorialsWhen you interview for a new job, an employer often will ask you what your salary is at your current job, for three reasons:

  • The company doesn’t want to waste your time if the new job pays much less.
  • The company doesn’t want to insult you, and possibly lose you, by offering too little.
  • The company doesn’t want to pay too much. If the company knows what you’re earning now, it can take that into account and offer you a salary that’s just a little higher.

When you get down to it, a prospective employer has no business knowing your current salary, especially because the company can use that information to low-ball you. If you are negotiating to buy a house, the seller has no business asking, “Well, how much did you pay for your last house?”

Employers should price the position, based on the market, not the prospective employee.

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But this “salary history” practice has a more insidious effect. It can perpetuate unfair salary disparities between men and women. According to the Census Bureau, as reported on Monday by USA Today, women earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. When employers base future salaries on previous wages, they reinforce that earnings divide.

We favor a bill in the Illinois Senate that would prohibit companies from asking job candidates to divulge their current or most recent salary. The bill, approved last week by the House with bipartisan support, also would prohibit one company from asking another company how much a person is paid.

The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, and in the Senate by Sen. Dan Biss, D-Chicago. The issue is “under review,” we are told, in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office.

Critics of the bill say employers should be allowed to ask a job seeker how much he or she currently is paid as long as it is understood that the person can decline to say.

But if somebody really wants a job, they are not going to feel comfortable refusing to answer that question.

A more credible concern is that the bill should not overly penalize employers, especially small businesses, for violations of the new law. The aim is to force a change in long-time business practices without overreacting. As the Senate takes up the bill, there may be room for negotiation.

Similar laws have been passed in New York City and Massachusetts. In addition, USA Today reports, at least seven other states are considering the change — Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The size of your paycheck in a new job should not be shackled to the size of your paycheck in an old job.

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