When our employers force us to keep our salaries secret, they make life worse for everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic has made clear a reality much of the workforce already knows: You check your free speech rights at your employer’s front door. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Eidelson has reported on U.S. firms’ ongoing “silencing spree,” with hundreds of companies warning workers not to discuss coronavirus cases or share their concerns about the virus with colleagues. But those aren’t the only speech restrictions that are common in our modern workplaces. If you’re a worker today and you ask about your co-workers’ pay, you might be asked to pack up your belongings and shown the door.

decade ago, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) conducted the first national survey that asked workers whether their bosses allowed them to discuss wages and salaries. Results revealed that half of all workers — and approximately two-thirds of private sector workers — were either formally banned or discouraged from talking about pay. Since 2010, 10 states and D.C. have passed legislation penalizing employers who retain these pay secrecy policies. Until recently, whether these state efforts had the intended effect within workplaces remained unknown.

In 2017 and 2018, a team of us — myself, Patrick Denice of Western University and Shengwei Sun, who recently joined IWPR — partnered with the research firm GfK and expanded on IWPR’s initial efforts. We surveyed nearly 2,600 full-time workers on a range of topics, including pay secrecy policies. Our findings indicate that these state-level efforts, and all the ongoing national attention to the issue of pay secrecy in the contemporary workplace, have proved ineffective. The fraction of the workforce able to discuss pay without fear of reprisal hasn’t budged.

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