Virginia has a law that requires equal pay for equal work regardless of gender. A number of Republicans on Tuesday helped pass a bill in committee that would have added teeth to the law by allowing employees to recover attorney’s fees and costs if they proved they didn’t receive equal pay because of gender.

Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, the bill patron, might have been a little surprised when her bill cleared the Senate Finance Committee by an 11-5 vote. It had previously passed the Senate Commerce Committee.

She couldn’t celebrate long.

Republicans later said they thought it was a “message bill.” When they realized it added some teeth to the law, they quickly reversed course on Tuesday, voting that they would reconsider the bill on Wednesday.

This time, the bill didn’t fare as well.

“We believe there are adequate pay protections that already exist at the federal administrative levels,” said Nicole Riley, Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

“We do believe that by mandating the awards of attorney’s fees, we are concerned that this would open up exposure to small business owners with lawsuits. Many small business owners do not have HR departments and in-house legal counsel to deal with these types of complaints. So we do feel that it could be costly for them.”

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, who initially voted for the bill, explained that after his vote he “went back and looked at it” and realized he missed an important provision.

He said he supports the concept of equal pay but “the litigation aspect of it gives me a great deal of concern. That’s what I do for a living and I know the mischief that can be caused by that.”

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, agreed that the concept of equal pay is supported. Republicans then voted to kill Wexton’s bill for the year.

Changing their votes from support on Tuesday to opposition on Wednesday: Stuart; Sen. Frank Ruff R-Mecklenburg; Sen. Frank Wagner R-Virginia Beach; Sen. Mark Obenshain R-Rockingham; Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico; and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth.

Wexton said progress is coming. On the day the bill was heard in Senate Commerce — Women’s Equality Coalition Lobby Day — the hearing room was filled with supporters. The bill passed 15-0.

Wexton said they decided to kill the bill by moving it to the Finance Committee where they could do so without all the women in the room to watch.

“I think members of the Senate have seen the power that women have when they’re engaged and involved in what’s going on.”

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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