A day after a Louisiana House member proposed a weight limit for strippers, a House committee voted down equal pay legislation.
“The failure of the House Labor Committee to pass the Equal Pay Act today is a true disservice to the women of our state,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement released moments after the vote Thursday.
Edwards had campaigned on securing a law that would require many private employers to pay men and women the same wages for the same work. He mentioned the issue in his inaugural speech and appeared before a Senate committee to testify in favor of its passage.
Louisiana has the largest gender pay gap in the nation. Women in Louisiana earn 65 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, compared with a national average of 79 cents, according to the Governor’s Office. But opponents say the statistics are misleading and that an existing law already bans pay disparities between men and women.
Senate Bill 254 passed the state Senate easily in April. Supporters knew equal pay faced tougher opposition going in the more conservative House, particularly in the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, which is majority Republican.
Despite an effort to weaken the bill in order to woo the business community and repeated references to how the stripper imbroglio makes Louisiana’s treatment of women look bad in the eyes of the nation, the Republican majority on the panel voted to defeat the legislation.
The only deviation was a last-minute vote change by a Democrat — Marcus Hunter, of Monroe. Hunter said he changed his vote in hopes of taking advantage of parliamentary rules that could allow someone in the majority of a vote to revisit the legislation in the future. All admit, however, that it’s a scenario unlikely to succeed given the opposition on the committee.
“Overall, it’s been a terrible week for women at the State Capitol,” said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, after the Equal Pay Act was defeated and alluding to the “joke” proposal about strippers’ weight.
She held up the front page of The Advocate showing coverage of the “joke” and asked the committee to allow the entire House to debate the equal pay issue. “It’s an opportunity to change the headlines,” Moreno said.
After the vote, Moreno added, “We’re once again reminded that work to end sexism and inequality is far from over.”
SB 254 would have set up procedures and timelines through which employees who feel they are being paid less because of their gender could rectify the situation with their employers. If a resolution could not be found, the employee would have the right to file a lawsuit.
Sen. JP Morrell, the New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the bill, was seeking to put teeth in state law prohibiting private companies with more than 50 employees from setting pay policies on the basis of gender. Morrell missed Thursday’s hearing because his wife was about to give birth.
Opponents feared that the bill would expose businesses to a flood of lawsuits.
An amendment by Hammond Rep. Chris Broadwater, a Republican who had previously opposed the measure, would have limited, but not eliminated, those lawsuits.
His was a compromise worked out over several weeks with Edwards and Morrell. Broadwater said his amendment moved equal pay provisions under a single section of the state statutes in order to harmonize with existing law. The Equal Pay Act would create a more efficient process to handle pay inequity and make resolution easier, he said.
He hoped that the compromise in his amendment would persuade enough Republican members of the committee to drop their opposition.
Business groups, such as the Louisiana Association of Business Industry, said Broadwater’s efforts weren’t good enough. Even if SB 254 included Broadwater’s amendment, the Equal Pay Act would create a new way to sue employers, opponents said.
The amendment lost by a 7-8 vote, with Broadwater joining the Democrats.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said pay disparity should be handled in the employer’s office, not the courts. “We’re mandating how a business should be run,” he said of the bill.
Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh, of Shreveport, insisted that established law already forbids pay based on gender and that remedies already are spelled out. He told Ben Nevers, Edwards’s chief of staff, “You’re here to score a political point.”
Voting for Equal Pay Act (5): Chairman Patrick O. Jefferson, D-Homer; and Reps. Kenny R. Cox, D-Natchitoches; Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Vincent J. Pierre, D-Lafayette; and Edward J. Price, D-Gonzales.
Voting against (10): Reps Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond; Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall; Gregory Cromer, R-Slidell; Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville; Dodie Horton, R-Haughton; Marcus L. Hunter, D-Monroe; Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro; Blake Miguez, R-Erath; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; and Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs.