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Black women in Louisiana face the worst pay gap nationwide

August 2, 2017
By Jennifer Larino
Originally Posted on The Times Picayune

Louisiana ranks among states with the worst pay gaps between men and women. That picture worsens significantly if you are a black woman living and working in the state.

More than 210,000 black women working full-time jobs in Louisiana earn a median $26,488 a year in wages, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. That compares with $55,386 in median annual wages earned by white, non-Hispanic men in Louisiana.

That means African-American women in Louisiana face the worst pay gap in the nation, earning just 48 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men in the state. Looking nationwide, black women make about 63 cents on the dollar.

National and local women's rights organizations are highlighting the pay disparity to mark "Equal Pay for Black Women Day," which seeks to call attention to just how hard the gender pay gap hits women of color.

The day is typically marked on July 31, the point on the calendar when a black women's pay catches up. In Louisiana, equal pay advocates note black women would have to work into the fall the following year in order to reach annual pay parity with white men.

In a news release, The Independent Women's Organization, a New Orleans-based group that supports Democratic candidates, called Louisiana's track record on economic inequality "abominable."

"We have alarmingly high statistics in Louisiana for black women stuck in low wage jobs and in poverty, lacking workplace benefits like paid sick and maternity leave, and struggling to take care of the children and loved ones who depend on them," Independent Women's Organization Vice President Sharonda Williams said in a news release.

Williams added poverty remains linked to serious health problems, including chronic illness and high maternal mortality rates in Louisiana and much of the South.

Louisiana's pay gap is the second worst state in the nation, with women as a whole earning 68 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic male makes, according to analyses by the National Partnership for Women & Families and the American Association of University Women. The pay gaps for black and Hispanic women in the state are far worse.

To be sure, equal pay statistics only capture part of the pay picture.

Critics often note that women take time out of the job market to have children or voluntarily pursue different lines of work, in many cases choosing service positions like teaching and nursing that tend to pay much lower over more male-skewing jobs such as engineering and computer programming. Traditionally, women have also taken on a higher share of domestic work, caring for children and elderly parents.

Advocates for equal pay say that criticism is similarly problematic, failing to look at how pressures like societal norms and discrimination shape the decisions a woman makes over time.

A July 2016 analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found the gender pay gaps persists within occupations, even after accounting for experience, hours worked, and education. In addition, professions that have seen a gradual increase in female participation, like park rangers, have seen overall pay decrease over time.

The conversation about equal pay "should examine where our economy provides unequal opportunities for women at every point of their education, training, and career choices," the report concluded.

Equal pay measures face tough opposition in Louisiana.

State lawmakers this year voted against or sidelined several proposals aimed at closing the wage gap, including a bill that would have protected employees who discuss pay with fellow workers.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D - New Orleans, would have expanded the equal pay rule that now exists for state employees to private sector employers. The bill stalled on the Senate floor after Morrell failed to get enough votes for the measure.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, a business lobby group, was a vocal opponent of both measures, which the organization argued would burden employers and entangle them in frivolous lawsuits.

"It puts businesses in a constant position of having to defend themselves," Renee Amar, director of LABI's small business and health care councils, told lawmakers in May.

For now, Louisiana continues to rank at or near the bottom for equal pay for all women and, especially, for women of color. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Missouri are among states that have successfully narrowed the wage gap for African-American women, though work remains -- black women in those states earn roughly 68 cents on the dollar.