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Equal pay bills tough sell in La. Legislature

May 5, 2017
By Jim Beam
Originally Posted on American Press

BATON ROUGE — Only one of three equal pay bills got out of legislative committees Wednesday, and it will have tough sledding at other steps along the way.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, got his Senate Bill 2 out of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee without objection. It moves to the full Senate for debate, but will face tough odds in the House if it survives the upper chamber. The House has 60 Republicans, 41 Democrats and three independents. One seat is vacant.

Reps. Helena Moreno and Joseph Bouie, both New Orleans Democrats, saw their bills go down to defeat with 9-5 votes in the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. Moreno is sponsor of House Bill 222, and Bouie is sponsoring H.B. 112.

The political makeup of the two committees made the difference. The Senate committee has four Democrats and three Republicans. However, none of the seven objected to Morrell’s bill going to the full Senate.

The House committee is composed of 10 Republicans and six Democrats, and equal pay bills have always had tough going in the committee.

Morrell’s bill would extend protections in the Louisiana Equal Pay Act to men as well as women and would apply to private employers. Current law only applies to workers in government agencies.

Act 374 of 2013 provides that “a woman who performs public service for the state is entitled to be paid the same compensation for her service as is paid to a man who performs the same kind, grade and quality of service, and a distinction in compensation may not be made because of sex.”

Morrell’s bill, according to its summary, “provides that the Louisiana Equal Pay Act be applicable to men and private employers and requires government contractors to verify equal pay practices. It renames the 2013 law as the Louisiana Equal Pay Act.”

The legislation extends the definition of employer to include local governments and political subdivisions. Also included are individuals, partnerships, corporations, associations, businesses, trusts, labor groups, entities with 50 or more full-time employees.

Moreno’s legislation would have prohibited employers from retaliating against employees for discussing information about their pay. Bouie’s bill would have extended the existing equal pay law for government employees to companies that have government contracts.

Most of the arguments in favor of Moreno’s bill are used in defense of other equal pay measures. She said polls show that 90 percent of those surveyed favor equal pay for women, along with 83 percent of Republicans.

Moreno said equal pay is good for business and that employers should be able to justify how they pay their employees. However, she said her bill was simply requiring employers not to retaliate against any employee for discussing information about his or her pay.

Equal pay supporters say many families living in poverty are struggling and that many are headed by women. Moreno said they should have the power to negotiate their salaries.

Melissa Flournoy of Louisiana Progress said they can’t negotiate if they don’t know what their salaries are. She said Louisiana has taken advantage of women for generations.

Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, said she didn’t believe there was a wage gap for women, but has changed her mind. She said women deserve an equal shot and that she would like to see equal pay legislation get to the full House.

Julie Cherry, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana AFL-CIO, said women have a vested interest in their working conditions and that retaliation deprives them of their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

Moreno amended her bill to contain provisions of a 1935 federal law that provides the protections she was seeking with her measure, but it didn’t help.

Representatives of the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry said their organizations are concerned about the Moreno bill encouraging lawsuits and that it would be better to conduct a campaign to acquaint women with the federal law.

Two other equal pay bills are awaiting hearings before the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, is sponsoring H.B. 384, which would repeal existing law and replace it with a pay equality provision for all private and public employees in the state, regardless of their sex.

Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, is sponsor of H.B. 282. It would extend equal pay protection to all people employed in the state.