Baton Rouge lawmakers have moved forward a package of bills that aim to end gender-based pay disparities, establish a statewide minimum wage and combat workplace discrimination.
The state Senate's Labor and Industrial Relations committee on March 15 advanced seven bills from New Orleans Sens. J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter, who were joined by Gov. John Bel Edwards urging approval for the measures listed among his legislative priorities this session. The bills now head to the full state Senate.
Carter's Senate Bill 162 would establish an hourly minimum wage of $8 beginning in 2019, which would then increase to $8.50 in 2020. Louisiana is among five states that that have not set a minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25.
Morrell's Senate Bill 117 requires companies that contract with the state to adhere to the state's Equal Pay Law, and his Senate Bill 149 prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees for discussing wages - an effort to promote wage transparency and highlight pay discrepancies that breach protections for equal pay for equal work.
[jump] [content-1] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana women on average make 65 cents for every dollar made by men - 14 percent below the national average. Black women earn on average 48 cents for every dollar earned by white men. Edwards said those disparities are "truly offensive and we ought to do better than that."
"I've heard a lot of excuses and 'now is not the time,'" he said. "I ask you all: If not now, when?"
Edwards said stronger equal pay protections extend beyond the women who are ensuring fair wages and ultimately will help lift children out of poverty.
"Closing the pay gap is not just a women’s issue. It’s a fairness issue. It’s a family issue," he said. "What kind of message does that send to coworkers trying to provide for their families? What does it say to young people trying to work their way through college or support a child? ... These are small steps but they’re going to make a big difference. ... These ought to be easy."
Carter admitted that raising the state's minimum to $8.50 an hour doesn't constitute a "living wage."
"$8.50 is a very, very modest request. It should be much more," he said. "Our workers deserve more. But the reality is we’ll take what we can get. Anything is better than where we are."
Carter's Senate Bill 159 also allows local governments to set their own minimum wage and Senate Bill 252 acts as a sort of safeguard that - if the bill raising the state minimum wage fails - would put it it on the ballot via statewide constitutional referendum. (If that passes, voters would decided on a wage increase during Nov. 6, 2018 elections.)
The minimum wage increase passed along party lines by a 4-3 vote. It was opposed by Republican Sens. Neil Riser, Barrow Peacock and Ronnie Johns. Peacock and Johns also opposed the statewide referendum
[content-2] Morrell's equal pay protections faced opposition from business groups the National Federation of Independent Business, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Associated Builders & Contractors, and the Louisiana Homebuilders Association. NFIB state director Dawn Starns said equal pay protections are adequately covered in present law. Morrell and pay equity activist Julie Schwam Harris disagreed.
"What it does is have some provisions; you’re supposed to pay equally," Harris said. "What it doesnt do is get at some of the things that prevent people from implementing the law and having the law be effective ... There is no way to ask for equal pay if you dont know [about pay inequality in the workplace]."
The committee also passed Carter's Senate Bill 291, which adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in workplace discrimination laws
"It’s a bill of fairness," he said. "It’s a bill that sends a message that everyone should be protected."
The measure was supported by LGBTQ advocacy groups Forum for Equality and the Louisiana Trans Advocates, which provided a list of companies that already have similar policies in place, including Entergy and Cox.
In his closing remarks, Carter pointed to those companies' abilities to add those protections without issue. "I think that says a whole lot, he said. "The world did not come to an end because a person was judged on their performance and ability to a job," not their orientation or gender identity.
Passing the measure sends a message "to people who have been punished and abused because of discrimination," he said.
Riser, Peacock and Johns also opposed that measure.