Gender bias bill is a 'gotcha' law for retail industry, opponent says

By Rodric J. Hurdle-Bradford | Apr 25, 2016

SACRAMENTO - The California State Assembly’s reputation for passing a lot of laws that often do not match their advertised efficiency once implemented is part of a debate behind Senate Bill 899 – a proposal that purports to end gender bias with equal pricing in the retail sector.

Opponents think it is more pointless legislation that will make business owners cut through more unnecessary red tape.

"I oppose SB 899 because I feel it is going to turn into a 'gotcha' law for the retail industry," said Kim Stone, executive director of the Civil Justice Association California (CJAC). "It uses the wrongful act of discrimination as a false pretense to put retailers in a catch-22 position."

That position is determining if a product or good has a higher price because of the intended gender of the purchaser, regardless if the buyer is that gender or not. This includes small discrepancies like comparing a pink razor meant for women versus a blue razor sold to men.

"I do not think there is a need for this bill," says Stone. "A consumer can see all of the different types of razors, make the price and product comparison, then make the decision for themselves."

SB 899 was introduced to the California State Senate on Jan. 21, and on April 18 the Standing Judiciary Committee recommended the bill pass with amendments made on March 31. On April 19 the bill was further amended and ordered for an additional reading before the full Senate.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) and co-authored by assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) under the guise of fair retail pricing for female products. All five supporting votes in the Senate Judiciary were from Democrats and the lone dissenting vote was from Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa). Republican Sen. Joel Anderson was absent from the committee vote.

Advocates for the bill point to a study from the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs that found that women pay an average of eight percent more for adult clothing, children's clothing, toys and accessories, as well as senior and home care and personal care products.

Opponents of the bill believe it is needless pandering to females during an election year.

"This bill does not give any guidance to small business owners or to the retail industry. So how are they supposed to figure it out?" Stone said. "A gender discrimination lawsuit that can put somebody out of business is a heavy price to pay over a price different that could be literally pennies."

Stone also says that retailers might simply increase prices for all products instead of decreasing product prices for items made for women.

"Businesses are the backbone of our society and that has to be remembered when these types of laws are made," says Stone.

The California Retailers Association has come out against SB899, making the point that price differences could be due to higher costs of package design, development or marketing for certain women's products. Additionally, the retailers association argues that size and price differences in product packaging and materials can lead to the cost differences when an item finally makes it to a store.

Proponents of SB 899 have not yet outlined the anticipated costs for either small businesses or nationwide retailers; opponents warn that retailers could be forced to change prices nationwide, both in store and for online shopping.

"Stores sell a whole host of products with a wide variety of prices," says Stone. "So for all of them to be set to the exact same price for products that are 90 percent alike is unreasonable."

While opponents like Stone and the California Retailers Association believe SB 899 is unreasonable, several California-based entities are supporting it, including the California Association of Retired Americans, California Public Interest Research Group and the Women's Foundation of California.

SB 899 follows 1995's California Assembly Bill 1100, the Gender Tax Repeal Act, which eliminated gender-based pricing for services like dry cleaning and haircuts.

Stone remains steadfastly opposed to the proposal, saying that it only benefits attorneys, not consumers.

"Lawyers are always the ultimate beneficiary of legislation like this, not the consumer," says Stone. "This is not justice for gender discrimination, it is setting random rules so that business owners can jump through even more hoops. Consumers are smart enough to make their own decisions without placing the livelihood of business owners at risk."

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