Several times a week, Tanya Harrell puts on her McDonald's uniform, gets into the car she shares with her boyfriend and drives across the river from Gretna to New Orleans in time for her 4 p.m. shift.
The 20-year-old relies on her job to support her boyfriend, Warrick Scott, and his 3-year-old son, Baylen. Because they can't afford day care, and Scott isn't able to work, she's the sole provider for the household.
But her $7.50 hourly wage means there's never enough in her paycheck to meet her family's needs.
"Right now I'm still living with my grandmother," Harrell told Gambit, her voice rising in frustration. "We can't even afford to get a $600 [a month] apartment."
Sometimes, she and her boyfriend have to sell their plasma, the liquid part of the blood, just to put gas in the car. Donating too much plasma carries health risks, but Harrell says it's necessary. "We are barely making it," she explains.
Harrell makes just 25 cents an hour above the federal minimum wage for workers who do not receive tips. And she isn't alone. Studies show that women in Louisiana frequently find themselves in poorly paying jobs simply because they are women.
According to Gov. John Bel Edwards, women comprise nearly 80 percent of the minimum wage earners in Louisiana. This, he says, contributes to the state's extreme gender disparity in pay — America's largest. It's one more example of Louisiana finishing at the top of a "bad" list.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that here, women on average make 65 cents for every dollar made by men — 14 percent below the national average.
A closer look at the statistics reveals an even grimmer reality. African-American women, for example, are paid just 48 cents for every dollar earned by white men. For Latinas, the figure is 51 cents.
Those lower wages mean families often don't have enough to spend on basic necessities. The National Partnership for Women and Families found that if women were paid equal to men, women could buy 21 more months of rent, 137 weeks of food and more than 8,100 gallons of gas.
Harrell hopes to graduate high school soon so she can get a higher paying job. On her wish list is a home of her own, a second car for her family and decent schooling for her boyfriend's kids.
But even if she were to go to college and graduate, it doesn't mean she would make a fair living wage. That's because in Louisiana, pay inequality spans all education levels, according to the American Association of University Women.
The state Legislature's Louisiana Fair Pay Task Force supports those findings. In 2014, it also found women earn less than men even in female-dominated fields. Worse, things are not expected to improve any time soon. It is estimated that Louisiana's wage gap won't close until 2106, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
"That's not right at all," Harrell says. "Everybody out here deserves a decent living altogether, period."
Women earn 66.7 cents for every dollar men do*
Evidence abounds that Harrell is not alone among women in Orleans Parish, where she works, or in Jefferson Parish, where she lives.
The poverty rate in New Orleans has remained statistically unchanged since 1999, when the rate was measured at 28 percent, according to a 2014 report from The Data Center. In Jefferson Parish, the poverty rate has increased from 14 to 15 percent.
Interestingly, statistics also show that for women earning above minimum wage, the pay gap in Orleans and Jefferson parishes is closer than the national average. In Orleans, the figure is 80 cents for every dollar earned by men; in Jefferson, it's 79 cents.
That's not the case 80 miles west in Assumption Parish, a place marked by sugar cane fields and chemical plants sprawled across a rural landscape. Some women in Assumption, like restaurant manager Trista Bourge, know they make as much as their male counterparts. But she's in the minority. On average, women in Assumption make 52 cents for every dollar made by men.
Pay equity wasn't always the case for the 32-year-old Bourge, either. She recently left a restaurant in a nearby parish, in part because she found out she was doing triple the work but making the same amount — $17 an hour — as a man with a lower ranking job. "I didn't mind the workload, as long as I was fairly compensated," she said.
At the federal level, the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act would address gender pay gaps in all 50 states by adding protections to the Equal Pay Act of 1963, as well as to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced in 2013 but remains mired in Potomac gridlock.
Pay inequity is an emotional topic for many Louisiana women, because in our state more than 278,000 families — about 40 percent — are headed by women. Statistics show that 38 percent of those families live on incomes that fall below the poverty level, which is $24,300 a year or less for a family of four.
Moreover, 10 percent of women across the state earn less than $15,000 a year. And only 26 percent earn more than $50,000, according to the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
One reason the gap is so wide, according to state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, is that state laws aren't strong enough to protect women from discriminatory policies in private workplaces.
2106: when women are expected to see equal pay rates in Louisiana*
This past legislative session, Morrell authored and pushed a bill that would have allowed women an avenue to discuss pay inequality with their employers if they thought they were being paid less because of their gender.
If those discussions failed to remedy the situation, the women would have had the right to sue — a provision Morrell said would have put "teeth" into the existing state law on gender pay equity. Morrell's measure passed the Louisiana Senate, but died in a House committee.
Opponents of equal pay bills were wary of their effects on business owners, saying Morrell's bill would have exposed them to frivolous lawsuits.
Reps. Blake Miguez and Alan Seabaugh, both Republicans, were among those who vehemently opposed that bill. Miquez was opposed to mandating "how a business is run." Seabaugh argued laws already on the books are sufficient.
Ava Dejoie, director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, says many people don't understand how important it is to close the wage gap — and not just for the women affected. She points to $670,000 in lost wages annually, money that could be put back into the state's economy.
"I think we have to dispel a lot of myths," Dejoie said. "I think particularly in rural areas, there's a lot of education we need to do."
Harrell agrees. Recently, she became an advocate for the organization Raise Up for $15, which demands a minimum wage of $15 an hour. She says pay inequality would be less detrimental if women just made a decent base salary to start with.
The federal minimum wage, which has not changed since 2009, is $7.25. Currently, 29 states have minimum wages above that amount, but Louisiana is not one of them.
"We're just moving forward, hoping for better things," Harrell said of her family. "I want it better for everybody."
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