If workers do the same job, they should be paid the same wage. That's not a complicated concept, but it's one that has run into trouble in the Louisiana Legislature in years past. According to statistics provided by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), at the time of the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963, women were only being paid 59 cents for every dollar that men were paid for doing the same jobs. By 2010 — nearly 50 years later — Louisiana women hadn't made much progress, being paid only 63 cents on the dollar compared to men. (The national wage gap shows women making 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.)
That pay gap, according to the NWLC, exists across all income levels, races and levels of education. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also bears out Louisiana's wide pay disparity. In 2011, the Bureau found Wyoming to be the only state with a wider pay gap than Louisiana. That needs to change.
Some Louisiana lawmakers have tried to address this inequity in recent years — without success. In the 2012 legislative session, the Equal Pay for Women Act, sponsored by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, went down in a 3-5 Senate committee vote. This year, a similarly titled act by state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, was rejected in a vote in May. Opponents cited concerns that private companies could become enmeshed in expensive lawsuits. Fortunately, Murray did not give up.
Last week, Murray convinced his colleagues to accept an amended version of his bill, which passed with one major but narrowing provision: The new law only applies to state workers, not to private employees. That version of the bill (Senate Bill 153) passed in the Senate by an overwhelming (and bipartisan) margin: 35-2, and flew through the House as well. It now goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk, and he would do well to sign it.
Opponents of SB 153 and similar legislation posited several arguments. The first is that men's jobs are often more physical and difficult. That doesn't hold water — equal pay legislation is predicated on people doing the same job. The second argument against equal pay is that any state legislation that tracks the federal Equal Pay Act is unnecessary and duplicative. That may sound true, but federal legislation hasn't eliminated the wage gap for women — and Louisiana politicians, it should be noted, are hardly averse to passing duplicative laws when it makes them look good back home. A law requiring equal pay for women (who, by the way, comprise almost 55 percent of the voting public) does a lot more than make lawmakers look good back home. It's smart politics and good policy.
The third objection is the only one that holds water. Some say the pay gap is a natural financial consequence that comes when women make the choice (or are forced) to drop out of the workplace or work fewer hours because of child rearing or other matters. (Read: "the mommy tax.") True, that argument may account for some of the pay gap in aggregate, but it's meaningless when comparing two people with the same experience doing the same job — and certainly child rearing isn't the job of every woman. (And plenty of men are raising kids these days as well. Perhaps "the mommy tax" ought to be renamed "the parent tax.")
SB 153 won't eliminate the pay gap by itself. Instead, it lays out a path for state workers who feel they're the victims of gender-based pay discrimination. An aggrieved worker must inform her employer of her complaint, triggering a 60-day period during which the state agency cannot retaliate and the worker cannot bring any action against her employer. If the matter isn't resolved during that period, she can file a complaint with the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights (an existing state agency). If the commission fails to resolve the dispute, then — and only then — will a worker be able to file a civil suit.
Murray's bill won't tighten the pay gap in the private sector, but it will provide a clear means of redress for state workers who've been treated unequally. We urge Gov. Jindal to sign SB 153. June 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and this bill brings Louisiana closer to the goal of ensuring equal pay for equal work across the spectrum.