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Equal pay for Louisiana women: Here’s how lawmakers voted Wednesday

May 4, 2017
Originally Posted on The Times Picayune

Advocates seeking stronger equal pay protections for Louisiana women eked a victory late Wednesday afternoon (May 3) after state senators chose to move forward with a bill that requires private business to pay men and women the same wage for the same work. The decision came after state representatives killed two equal pay proposals earlier that morning.

The Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee voted to keep alive the proposal, which not only extends protections to both private sector and government workers, but also spells out rules for how and when workers can sue their employers. The bill is sponsored by Sens. J.P. Morrell and Karen Carter Peterson, both New Orleans Democrats.

Morrell noted the proposal was the same legislation that won backing from the Senate last year. The bill was later rejected by the House labor committee.

On Wednesday, business groups and other critics echoed worries from last year that the proposal -- and similar equal pay legislation -- will lead to a spike in lawsuits.

Here is how the equal pay debate shaped up on Wednesday.

House Bill 222

Status: The House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee defeated the bill Wednesday on a 9-5 vote.

The gist: Prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for discussing information about his or her pay.

For: Rep. Helena Moreno, D - New Orleans, the bill's sponsor, and other supporters said the legislation was necessary to foster a safe dialogue about pay among female and male workers and businesses. She emphasized the bill would not require businesses to post salary information nor would it invite lawsuits.

"This is about freedom of speech and empowering people to be advocates for themselves in the workplace," said Julie Cherry, secretary-treasurer for the Louisiana AFL-CIO. "They need information to be able to do that. The appropriate protections are in this bill."

Against: Business groups called for a campaign to raise awareness about existing protections under federal law, not another state law. Rep. Chris Broadwater also worried about overlap with the National Labor Relations Act. (Moreno later moved to amend the bill to more closely match federal law, but it wasn't enough to gain support.)

Small business owners are doing their best to follow existing law, said Dawn Starnes, Louisiana director of the National Federation of Independent Business. "I don't think anyone intentionally discriminates against anyone from a small business owner's perspective," she said.

Quote: "We're always encouraging our young girls to work hard in school, to go for a college degree, to get even an advanced degree, and if you do all of these things you're going to get that high-paying job. But the wage gap still persists regardless really of the industry, your job choice, or even your education level," Moreno said.

House Bill 112

Status: The House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee defeated the bill Wednesday on a 9-5 vote.

The gist: Requires companies that have public government contracts to comply with existing equal pay law.

For: Rep. Joseph Bouie, D - New Orleans, said his bill would bring more accountability to government contractors when it comes to equal pay. Existing law requires state agencies to pay the same wages to men and women who perform the same work.

Against: Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R - Shreveport, said existing state laws banning discrimination in the workplace provide enough protection. Renee Amar with the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry said the bill would be too complicated to enforce. "You're talking about any contractor who submits a bid or enters into a contract...I perceive that as putting more of a burden on your administrative function as the state," Amar said.

Quote: "Louisiana women actually have the worst pay gap between men and women workers in the country. Personally, as a male from Louisiana, I'm embarrassed by that," Bouie said. 

Senate Bill 2

Status: The Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee voted to move the bill forward Wednesday. It now goes to the Senate floor for debate.

The gist: If passed, this bill would extend protections afforded by the Louisiana Equal Pay Act to men as well as women and would cover private employers, not just government agencies. (Employers would have to employ at least 50 workers to fall under the law.) It would also clarify how and when workers can sue their employers. Read the full bill.

For: Sen. J.P. Morrell, D - New Orleans, the bill's sponsor, said the bill would provide all workers "the tools to address inequities" as well as provide a layer of protection for businesses that put in a good-faith effort to resolve a pay dispute. The bill includes protections for workers who share and discuss their wage with a fellow employee.

Against: LABI's Amar said the bill puts businesses "in a constant position of having to defend themselves" from lawsuits. Sen. Barrow Peacock, R - Bossier City, agreed and proposed several changes in an amendment, including one that would have allowed businesses to blame a tight job market as just cause for paying a worker less, if the worker agrees to the lower pay. The committee voted down the amendment. (Sen. Troy Carter, D - New Orleans, said Peacock's amendment "flips [the bill] upside down and guts its intent.")

Quote: "If you want the market to dictate pay then let the employees know what each other is making," Morrell said.