Hoping to calm the business community’s fears, New Orleans Sen. JP Morrell heavily amended his equal pay measure, and the Louisiana Senate approved the bill that would require many private employers to pay men and women the same for the same work.

Senators voted 28-10, sending Senate Bill 254 to the House, where the legislation is expected to have a rougher go of it.

“Everything that concerned (the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry) and small business was addressed, every issue was addressed,” Morrell said after the vote.

But he’s unsure that will be enough for the more conservative House. “My sense is they’ll find something new” to oppose, he said.

Morrell, a Democrat, 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. Opponents feared that the bill would expose businesses to a new flood of lawsuits.

“At some point, the whole purpose of this bill is, in a worst case scenario, for a third party to make a determination,” Morrell said. But he was willing to make the changes necessary to give some level of comfort.

The original bill set up a couple of steps before an aggrieved employee could go to court. An employer has 60 days to either refute an unequal pay allegation or to start paying the employee fairly.

If the issue is unresolved, then the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights could be asked to review the evidence. The panel could look at the various reasons for different wage rates, such as seniority, education, productivity, merit or any differential not based on gender.

If the aggrieved employee is unsatisfied with the panel’s findings, then a lawsuit can be filed.

Morrell amended the measure to remove wording that would compare tasks in the workplace in determining whether male and female employees are paid equally. The LABI and its supporters in the Senate said the term “comparison” was too ambiguous. The vagueness of the term would invite lawsuits asking judges to decide what equal tasks actually mean.

The legislation already had the nation’s only hold-harmless clause, which would allow an employer to just grant a raise before the matter ever made it to court and not worry about having to pay “back wages” for all the years the employee was paid inequitably.

On the floor of the Senate, Morrell amended the legislation to cap “back wages” at three years, should the employee file and win a lawsuit.

The National Women’s Law Center calculates that on average, Louisiana women are paid about $17,000 less than men each year or about $671,840 in lost wages, pension benefits and Social Security over a woman’s lifetime. It’s the accumulation of those “back wages” that account for the most costly part of the amounts that courts award in employment discrimination lawsuits.

Morrell also agreed that the loser should pay the winner’s attorney fees and that what the lawyers get paid will be decided by a judge.

“We would have rather not given away that much,” said Camille Moran, an advocate for women’s rights and a small business owner from Natchitoches, who watched the debate from the Senate gallery. “But we’re very, very encouraged by this first step.”

Louisiana has the largest pay gap in the nation. Women in Louisiana earn 65 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, compared to a national average of 79 cents, according to the governor’s office.

Passing an equal pay bill was one of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ campaign promises and an issue he revisited during his inauguration speech.

Prior to the Senate taking up the bill, Edwards met with advocates from women’s groups — all wearing scarlet red — who had been lobbying legislators in the halls of the State Capitol. He was accompanied by his wife, Donna, and Christopher Lu, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, who said he was in Baton Rouge to lend support for the effort.

“Across the country today, there are women earning less than men simply because they are women,” Lu said.

Edwards said he had been speaking with senators as he has seen them but hasn’t been summoning the lawmakers to lobby them individually.

The measure’s process was aimed at assuring the business community that the law would not be a bonanza for lawyers, he said, adding that Morrell’s other amendments should answer other concerns raised.

Voting FOR the Equal Pay Act (28): Sens. Barrow, Bishop, Boudreaux, Brown, Carter, Claitor, Colomb, Cortez, Erdey, Gatti, Hewitt, Johns, LaFleur, Lambert, Luneau, Martiny, Milkovich, Mills, Mizell, Morrell, Morrish, Perry, Peterson, G. Smith, Tarver, Thompson, Ward and White.

Voting AGAINST SB254 (10): President Alario, Sens. Allain, Appel, Chabert, Fannin, Long, Peacock, Riser, J. Smith and Walsworth.

Not Voting (1): Sen. Donahue

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