- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A measure to ban wage discrimination in small businesses advanced Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature despite some opponents saying it would create unnecessary hurdles for entrepreneurs.

Lawmakers gave the bill first-round approval on a 26-7 vote. The legislation would expand the state’s Equal Pay Act to include businesses with two or more employees. The law, which prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, now only applies to employers with 15 or more workers. Employees in smaller businesses must take complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“We are a pro-business state, folks, but we also have to make sure that our employees are looked after,” said Sen. Burke Harr, who is from Omaha and chairs the Legislature’s Business and Labor Committee.

The measure is a combination of proposals from the Business and Labor Committee and Sens. Heath Mello and Tanya Cook, who are both from Omaha.

Opponents said the legislation would burden small businesses, and they questioned whether employers still pay women less than men in 2016. Several senators responded that women continue to be paid less than men.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte called the bill “feel-good” legislation.

“Generations have changed. What happened 20 years ago isn’t going to happen today,” he said.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said looping smaller businesses into the Equal Pay Act dumps a slew of new regulations on them that they may not be able to support, including requiring them to keep more records and hire lawyers.

Harr said businesses would not necessarily need to hire attorneys because cases would not always result in lawsuits. The Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission works to investigate and mediate with both employees and employers, he said.

“It’s a compromise bill,” Harr said. “It’s a way of making sure in a sound, responsible way - and to be quite honest, in a cost-effective way - that if there is discrimination, there is a proper investigation done by a state agency.”

Supporters of the measure said expanding Nebraska’s law to include businesses with two or more employees would make it consistent with federal law. They also said it would lead to more complaints being directed to the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission, which has a less expensive and arduous process than the federal complaint setup.

Cook said fair business practices draw workers to the state and reduce the number of people on public assistance.

“People want to earn their own living,” she said. “Please let them be compensated at the appropriate, equal level for the work.”

She added that she hopes opponents will not continue to protest the measure in the second and third rounds of debate.

“I am choosing a positive mental attitude,” Cook said. “With everything that’s getting ready to get on the agenda, I can’t imagine that my colleagues would invest more time in these kinds of tactics, when their own personal priority bills might be at risk to timing out.”

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The bill is LB83.

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