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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Louisiana Senate rejects equal pay, minimum wage bills

Posted By on Tue, Mar 27, 2018 at 7:35 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BOB SMITH
  • PHOTO BY BOB SMITH

The Louisiana Senate failed to pass three bills working to close gender-based pay disparities and lift families out of poverty by increasing the minimum wage by $1.25 from the current federal minimum of $7.25.

New Orleans Democratic Sens. J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter sponsored a package of bills — one extending equal pay protections to women working with state contracts, another establishing a state minimum wage of $8.50 by 2020, and other prohibiting employers from firing employees for discussing wages. They narrowly passed a Senate committee earlier this month.

Morrell's extension of the Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act, which currently applies to state workers, would apply to businesses with state contracts. It failed by a vote of 18-20.
"We spend so much time as a society pretending issues aren’t issues," Morrell said. "Until Brown vs. Board of Education, the vast majority of Americans through separate but equal was OK. ... People ignored the systemic discrimination."

Louisiana's wage gap among men and women workers is among the worst in the U.S.; the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates it won't close until the year 2115.

Republican Sens. Danny Martiny and Sharon Hewitt argued against the measure, which Hewitt believes is already addressed by federal law. Hewitt said the remedy is women entering "higher-paying careers."

"This is a lawyer’s bonanza," said Martiny, adding that businesses would "have to deal with the equal pay for women issue," so they would end up saying they'd "rather hire the man."

All those "bad employers," he said, "would have to do is use different job descriptions to show they’re not equally situated."

"It sounds good on paper, but when it comes down to the practice, anyone who doesn’t want to adhere to this fill find a way around it," he said.

Morrell challenged Martiny's assertion that litigation would follow equal pay protections; in 2015, state Sen. Ed Murray introduced similar, admittedly "piecemeal" legislation establishing equal pay for equal work for state workers. "When he did, all those groups told you there was going to be a cottage industry of litigation over pay discrimination in Louisiana," Morrell said. "Guess what: there isn’t,"

"I’m really embarrassed to be a citizen in the state of Louisiana," said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who said she was nearly moved to tears after hearing comments from Martiny and Hewitt.

"If there weren’t the protection for the constitution, some people probably believe that
I might still be a slave, like my ancestors, if we waited on good intentions," she said. "If you don’t have power we have with the law to change the policy, we’ll never advance. ... You with the women, or are you not? No gray area."

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said "a vote against equal pay is a vote against fairness, progress and against the hardworking women of our state who deserve to be compensated the same as their male counterparts for the same job."

With several recent polls and studies pointing to statewide support for equal pay protections, "this should have been one of the easiest votes the Senate has taken," Edwards said, "but unfortunately, they have chosen to continue this disparity.”

Carter's bill would establish a statewide minimum wage of $8.50 by 2020, unmoored from the state's reliance on the federal minimum of $7.25. Louisiana is one of five states that have not set a minimum wage law. Carter's bill failed by a vote of 17-21.

"The basic things we need have all increased. Rent has increased, utilities have increased, food has increased, the cost of living has increased across the board," Carter said. "Minimum wage has remained the same. It’s basic math. How could you possibly keep up when the cost of living has raised but the [wage] is static?"

Carter also has another bill that will put the idea of raising the minimum wage to a vote of the people on the fall ballot.

Gov. Edwards also expressed his disappointment with the Senate's rejection of the bill.

“Not advancing this legislation is a step backwards for our families and our children who live in poverty but want to work," Edwards said. "Thousands of Louisianans are struggling to live off of $7.25 an hour, and unfortunately while the cost of living has increased over the years, their wages have not. This is a problem we can do something about, and it’s clear that is exactly what a majority of people across our state, regardless of their party affiliation, want us to do."

Morrell's Senate Bill 149 aimed to eliminate "pay secrecy" by preventing employers from discriminating against employees who discuss their wages. It failed by a vote of 15-23.

Morrell said the bill would give employees the ability to know whether they're making enough relative to their skills, and use that to look for a different job, He hoped to use that to appeal to senators "expounding the benefits of capitalism."

"This is capitalism: know the value of a commodity" and get the most from it, he said.

"I’m trying to meet you where you’re at," Morrell told the Senate. "I cannot begin to express my disappointment that I don’t feel like we’re even here yet.

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