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Mayor Mitch Landrieu laughs with Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson, left, next to La. Representative Helena Moreno, and New Orleans Council member LaToya Cantrell after signing an executive order to promote equal pay for women in city jobs at City Hall in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. The executive order will ban questions about salary history during the application and interview processes for City positions and request that the Civil Service Commission conduct a pay disparity study among City employees.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

In a move aimed at helping to ensure equal pay for women in city government, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Wednesday ordered a ban on questions about a job applicant's pay history in the initial stages of the city’s hiring process.

Landrieu also asked the city’s Civil Service Commission to conduct a pay disparity study that would guide any future discussion about whether women employed by the city are getting short shrift on their salaries.

"It's time in New Orleans that we become an equal pay city," Landrieu said. "I believe that these steps are going to bring us closer to pay equity.”

The executive order came a day ahead of a New Orleans City Council meeting at which Councilman Jared Brossett will introduce the first of two ordinances with similar goals. Brossett said he has been working on those plans, which would also affect companies with city contracts, for months.

Both moves are likely to thrust New Orleans into a larger conversation as Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Democrats prepare for this spring’s legislative session. Edwards plans to try for a second time to advance an equal-pay bill for private firms at the state level.

Landrieu’s move might also be a playbook for the governor if that bill fails. 

The mayor's order is a first step in addressing an often-told problem: that women in New Orleans earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men in similar positions, or an average of roughly $9,567 less per year. For female heads of household, often single mothers, the pay gap is even wider, according to a 2014 study from Tulane University.

Barring questions about past salary could help women who have long been underpaid and whose pay at a new job would be based in part on what they have earned before, officials said. Massachusetts enacted a similar prohibition last year.

There’s an important caveat, however. The ban will mainly benefit only the city's “unclassified” employees, or those whose pay is not rigidly set based on qualifications and experience.

Although unclassified positions — which include many jobs in the mayor’s office, all high officials appointed by the mayor and many other positions in the upper echelons of city government — also come with salary ranges, applicants have more flexibility in those instances to negotiate their pay. 

Landrieu also is asking the city’s Civil Service Commission to examine whether a pay gap exists in city government and to suggest a solution if it does, administration spokesman Tyronne Walker said. Should that review indeed find disparities, the mayor could address that through the city’s budget process, Walker added.

The mayor’s order is a welcome addition to the work that pay-equity advocates and other public officials have been doing for years to close gender gaps, said some of the numerous public officials who flanked the mayor as he signed the new rule at City Hall.

“Right here in New Orleans, we are sending a big message to the rest of our state: Follow our lead. This is what needs to be done for women,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, adding that she and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, both New Orleans Democrats, will work with Edwards to push equal pay this spring at the Legislature. Peterson was also among those who applauded Landrieu's move.

Brossett, the councilman, has been working independently of the Mayor's Office since November on two ordinances aimed at ensuring female employees and those from minority groups receive a fair shake.

The first, which Brossett will introduce Thursday, would establish a nine-member Equal Pay Advisory Committee that would advise the council on issues related to pay equality, wage discrimination and poverty.

The second, which Brossett plans to introduce by early February, would ban pay discrimination for city workers and city contractors. It would deal only with the public sector, as state law bans the city from restricting private businesses unless they are doing work for the city.

Edwards sought last year to force private firms statewide to pay women equal wages, though that measure failed. Brossett, who sponsored a similar measure when he was in the Legislature, said he hopes his ordinance helps to revive that conversation.

Even 50 years after the passage of the federal Equal Pay Act, “women and people of color still today suffer consequences of pay inequality,” Brossett said. “It’s still an issue today — just like the many people who are employees of contractors that are not being paid an adequate salary for a full day’s work — and it also needs to be addressed.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.