equal pay 050317

State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, argued for her bill that would forbid companies from punishing employees who compared pay. The GOP-dominated House Labor committee rejected the measure on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

Wednesday was a mixed day for Equal Pay supporters in the Louisiana Legislature.

Two bills that would have furthered assurance that men and women receive the same wages for the same work were shot down in the House Labor committee.

A third measure was approved by a Senate committee. But it’s very similar to legislation that made it through the Senate last year only to die before in House Labor.

Senate Bill 2 includes the changes that Senate Republicans wanted last year, said Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans and sponsor of the measure. Those changes capped back pay and reduced employers’ exposure to lawsuits by allowing them to reconcile differences in pay disparities before going to court.

But, the legislation still doesn’t have the approval of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Renee Amar, a LABI vice president, said SB2 would remove the ability for employees and employers to negotiate wages and it puts businesses in the position of defending decisions that are often dictated by the market.

Morrell remains optimistic though winced as he noted that if the Senate considers SB2 favorably again, it goes to House Labor. “I’m more than willing to work to make a compromise on this issue,” Morrell said.

Moments before the Senate action, the House Labor committee voted down House Bill 112, by Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans. The legislation would have required a contractor doing business with state government to comply with the Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act.

“There’s very hard line against these bills in House Labor,” Rep. Helena Moreno said Wednesday. “I thought my bill had a reasonable chance of making it this time.”

Moreno’s House Bill 222 attempted to indirectly close the gender pay gap in Louisiana by increasing wage transparency. It was killed in a House Labor even after she watered it down so it would merely echo federal law.

HB222 would have prohibited private employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their wages. Moreno said the wage gap narrows when transparency is increased. That's partially why the wage gap in the public sector is smaller than the private sector, she said.

The bill would not require salary information to be posted. It only frees up employees, both men and women, to discuss their wages without fear of retribution and get a better understanding of whether they're being paid fairly.

A little known federal law already provides these protections and has been on the books since 1935, however members of the business community and legislators testified Wednesday that few were aware of it.

Dawn Starns, with the National Federation of Independent Business, and Renee Amar, with Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, testified that they'd prefer a campaign to let women know about the federal law. They said they were concerned Moreno's original bill went too far, and would create new opportunities for litigation against employers.

Moreno then offered an amendment that included the same exclusions to the state law that are contained in federal law.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said he was concerned about privacy.

"Anecdotally, businesses are very concerned about the sense of privacy in the workforce," he said. "They view wage information as proprietary information just like any trade secret."

Rep. Julie Stokes, R- Kenner, said it was time for the committee, which has shot down equal pay legislation year after year, to address what she said is a real problem with wage discrimination in the state.

Stokes said she previously didn't believe in the so-called gender gap, opting to believe like many other critics that there are too many other mitigating factors that impact wages. But she said over the past three years, she's heard testimony from women and had discussions with businesses that have convinced her it's a serious issue.

"There is a wage gap, and some portion of it is created by an unperceived bias," Stokes said.

Moreno, who started a nonprofit this year to address women's issue, said she'd continue to pursue the issue of equal pay for women.

"I will continue to speak up, stand up and show up on equal pay, because as we saw here today, we have a lot of work to do," she said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.