Mais Oui

Minding the Gap

by Cherry Fisher May

A progress report on pay equity in Louisiana

April 14 was designated “Equal Pay Day” in America for 2015. That’s the date that symbolizes annually how far into the new year the average American woman has to work to earn the same as the average American man in the previous year. The extra 104 days reflect a gender pay gap of 77 percent across the U.S., but here in Louisiana that gap is even wider. It means that our mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters have to work even more days to catch up with the men. Louisiana’s gap is so wide, in fact, that we rank 51st when compared to the rest of the country, which includes Washington, D.C., where the gap is smallest of all.

You know what they say in Mississippi: Thank God for Louisiana.

On the day before Equal Pay Day, the Louisiana Legislature began to assemble in Baton Rouge for the 2015 session. In the hopper was a bill filed by Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans, which would require employers in both the public and private sectors to pay employees equally for equal work. The bill made no mention of gender and would require a formal complaint process before a pay discrimination lawsuit could even be filed. Similar bills had been thwarted in previous years but to the surprise of almost everyone, this one passed the Senate mid-way through the session with bi-partisan support. Lafayette’s Sen. Page Cortez offered a key amendment to facilitate passage by limiting the bill’s impact to companies with 50 or more employees.

One would think that the Legislature would be hungry for the opportunity to do a few good deeds during such a rancorous session, but the bill met its doom in the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, where Lafayette Rep. Vincent Pierre voted for it and Rep. Stuart Bishop voted nay. Opponents opined that laws protecting against such discrimination are already on the books, that a new law would open the floodgates for litigation and that market forces would naturally bring gender earnings into parity.

But Murray’s bill was clearly designed to circumvent litigation by requiring a formal complaint before going to court. In fact, passing a law with a sensible complaint process will make lawsuits less necessary, not more. And if current laws and market conditions are doing such a good job of fixing it, why does Louisiana rank dead last?

In the past year, the American Association of University Women released a true apples-to-apples report revealing that college-educated women in full time jobs are paid 7 percent less than their male counterparts a year after graduation. That number erodes to 10 percent by age 35 and another 10-15 percent over time. For working class women, minorities and the working poor, the statistics are even starker, and since 40 percent of women are heads of household, the impact of the pay gap extends to families of all kinds at every level of income.

Closing the wage gap will enable female college graduates to pay off their student loans at the same rate as their male former classmates. It means more economic security and disposable income for families, which will boost household spending for some and decrease the need for government-assistance programs for others. It improves employee morale and retention, which helps the bottom line. Workers who are confident they’re being paid fairly are more focused, dedicated and productive. At least some in the Legislature got to debate those points during the recent session. Maybe next year a bill like Murray’s will get a full hearing. And maybe even pass.