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Establishing minimum wage, equal pay to be on table again in upcoming legislative session

March 29, 2017
By Mark Ballard
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Democrats and the Edwards administration are taking yet another swing at establishing a statewide minimum wage and at ensuring women are not paid less than men for the same work.

Both issues are part of the Democratic Party platform and both have long been on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ political bucket list. Measures addressing those concerns occasionally find momentary success but ultimately are defeated by the Republican-majority Legislature.

The latest attempts will be filed later this week in separate bills for debate during the legislative session that begins April 10.

Having grown weary of losing the Equal Pay fight year in and year out, state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said Wednesday she worked with the governor to find a different path.

And while legislators still may not be ready to approve a sweeping Equal Pay bill, “what I think we can do is to have businesses become more self aware of pay practices,” Moreno said. “I want to do something to make sure we move forward.”

Her bill would protect employees who compare salaries from company policies that make such conversations taboo.

An Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Rockefeller Institute survey found that about half of all workers (51 percent of women and 47 percent of men) reported that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited by their employer and could lead to punishment.

During her research Moreno came upon 15 states that recently had passed laws that forbid employers from having “pay secrecy” policies. As president in 2014, Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about their salaries or other compensation information.

"Pay secrecy fosters discrimination,” Obama said at the time.

Moreno said business leaders she’s talked to have expressed concern about their employees comparing salaries. But she pointed out that federal law already protects non-supervisory employees from retaliation when they discuss wages and working conditions with their employees.

“We heard about the concept a couple weeks ago, but we haven’t seen the bill yet,” said Renee Amar, the director of small business for the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry. The powerful business interest lobby routinely opposes Equal Pay legislation in Louisiana.

“It’s new and we haven’t dealt with it on the equal pay battlefield,” she added, so LABI is going to have to study Moreno’s proposal before coming to a position.

Amar has testified several times against equal pay proposals, arguing that dictating pay practices doesn’t advance improvement in compensation for women.

Transparency about wages in the private workplaces would go a long way to promoting equal pay, said Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel for the governor.

The pay of government workers already is public record and employees can go online to see what others make from the agency head to the lowest level clerk. Consequently, surveys comparing median incomes of male and female workers routinely show that the disparity between government employees is much narrower than between private employees.

Over in the state Senate, New Orleans Democratic Sen. J.P. Morrell already has filed a revamped version of the Louisiana Equal Pay Act legislation that cleared the Senate the first time ever in 2016, but was rejected by the Republican majority in the House Labor committee.

Senate Bill 2 is similar to the version that was approved by the upper chamber last year. Morrell's legislation sets up a procedure through which a person who suspects he or she is being underpaid in comparison to others in the same job at the same firm can go about rectifying the situation. It would apply to state agencies and private companies that do business with the government.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, is preparing this year’s attempt to establish a statewide minimum wage. He would set the minimum level at $8 per hour, beginning Jan. 1. Then, the minimum wage would increase to $8.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2019, as the measure is being drafted now.

In the absence of a statewide standard, Louisiana employers must pay their employers at least $7.25, the federal minimum, though some cities have enacted higher pay for their jurisdictions.

Last year’s effort to set the minimum wage went directly to an $8.50 level and stalled in the Senate almost from the very beginning of the 2016 session. At first, last year’s bill was assigned to a Senate Labor committee stacked with business-supporting Republicans who vowed to defeat the measure. It was then moved to the more favorable venue in the Senate Finance committee but was not voted on for the rest of the session.