Employee payroll audits, which have long been recommended as a best practice for corporations that want to stay on the right side of the law, have become even more critical with the current proliferation of labor and employment laws at the state level. Among other things, the California Fair Pay Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2016, places new demands on California employers that in many cases can only be effectively satisfied by means that include a payroll audit.

Earlier this month, we held a webinar to discuss the CA Fair Pay Act requirements and what employees should do to comply. Below you will find some of the key takeaways.

What is the California Fair Pay Act?

The new law goes further and imposes more obligations on employers than longstanding federal and state equal-pay and employment-discrimination laws. More than simply requiring employers to pay men and women equal pay for the same work, the California statute prohibits employers from paying members of one sex less than the rates paid to employees of the opposite sex “for substantially similar work, when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility, and performed under similar working conditions.” And the employees of opposite sexes whose jobs and pay are being compared need not work together in the same establishment. There are several important defenses to liability under the law, such as the employer’s use of a bona fide factor that is not sex-related.

How can a payroll audit help?

Determining what types of work are “substantially similar” in terms of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions is no easy task. That’s where a payroll audit can help.

On a step-by-step basis, a properly conducted audit will identify potential problems under the California Fair Pay Act by identifying positions that have “substantially similar work,” analyzing the pay of these workers by gender, finding any disparities in pay, and determining whether any defenses apply. For example, does the company have a bona fide seniority system or merit system, or is there a business necessity for the disparities in pay?

In addition to these complex Fair Pay Act questions, employee payroll audits remain desirable or necessary for other purposes, such as ensuring that employees are treated fairly under the company’s employee benefit plan and that certain employees or groups of employees are not excluded from the plan.

What steps should be taken?

When conducting a payroll audit, it should be done with review and consultation of attorney with the end goal of identifying and quickly addressing disparities that cannot be explained adequately or need to be corrected. It is important to note that the audit is subject to attorney/client privilege and/or work product protection. The following are key steps in the audit process:

  • Consider all job titles/descriptions across all geographic regions
  • Consider how to identify or sort based on disparate geographical locations
  • Compare the positions that have “substantially similar work
  • Determine if the statutory exemptions apply
  • Identify explanations for disparities
  • Address disparities that can’t be explained
  • Determine what action needs to be taken

Ongoing Compliance

From a compliance perspective, the number one benefit to conducting employee payroll audits is the ability to determine what action needs to be taken to address and correct disparities if they exist. Failure to address disparities that can’t be explained within the requirements of the California Fair Pay Act or the Federal Pay Act can result in penalties, sanctions and, in some cases, litigation with the DOL and/or IRS. Ongoing compliance should include regular review of the following:

  • Handbooks and policies to remove outdated references to “equal” work
  • Policies that prevent employees from discussing or asking about other employees’ compensation
  • How compensation decisions are made and adjust if necessary
  • Job descriptions – update and describe as comprehensive as possible
  • Record keeping – records must be kept for three years
  • Training of HR personnel, senior management on the new law and how it should be applied in setting compensation at hiring

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