Hope for change in the state with the worst gender and racial pay gaps

By Mary Babic
The pay gap between men and women yawns widest in Louisiana—already one of the poorest states in the country. This woman and her mother in Boothville, LA struggle to stay afloat, farming the land in back of their house. Photo: Audra Melton / Oxfam America

A little sun came through the clouds on Equal Pay Day this year. Smack in the middle of the most unequal state, the Louisiana State Senate passed new legislation aimed at closing gender pay gap.

If you’re going to tackle the pay gap between men and women, Louisiana is a darn good place to start. Nationally, the average woman makes 79 cents for each dollar that a man earns (which is bad enough); but in Louisiana it’s 65 cents. Even worse, for African American women it’s 48 cents. Over 200,000 African American women in that state are making median wages of $26,400, compared to white men’s median wages of $54,772—a gap of $28,372.

“It's utterly ridiculous that in 2016 women still face inequality in pay when performing the same job at the same level,” notes Darilyn Turner, an African American woman serving as executive director of the Zion Travelers Cooperation Center while raising two daughters in the bayou region south of New Orleans. “Women have to work twice as hard to prove our worth, but the paycheck doesn't reflect the hard work and dedication. My daughters and I are deeply concerned about this. So we advocate for equality, and hope that the future will afford them the opportunity for an even playing field in the job market. In the words of my daughter ‘I can do a job just as good as any man, if not better. Just let them try going up against this S I wear on my chest.’”  

With support from the administration of Louisiana's newly elected Governor John Bel Edwards, on April 12 (Equal Pay Day itself) the state Senate passed legislation aimed at closing Louisiana's gender pay gap by the fairly wide margin of 28-10. Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, introduced the bill, and spoke to it on Tuesday.

“I have a daughter, and it bothers me no end that she’s growing up in the state that has the worst pay in the country for women,” said Telley Madina, Senior Gulf Coast Policy Advisor for Oxfam America in New Orleans. “What’s more, she’s African American, and I worry about her future. In this state, we pay $675 million a year to keep people in prison, most of them African American men. You know that that means there are a lot of African American women heading families, and supporting them on these miniscule wages. It makes no sense.” In New Orleans, one in 14 African American men is behind bars

“This bill gives women a chance, and could make a real difference to African American families across the state,” said Madina.

Senate Bill 254 will aim to require private employers and local governments to pay men and women the same wage for the same work. This type of protection was already put in place for state employees in 2013, when the Louisiana Legislature passed a narrower equal pay bill

The bill faced scrutiny in the Senate, and was amended so a court could only award up to three years of backpay if a gender pay gap was found; and it would only apply to businesses with at least 50 employees.

It heads next to the Louisiana House.

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