BATON ROUGE — Two bills aimed at making sure women earn pay equal to their male peers were shot down Wednesday by lawmakers — ensuring, advocates say, that Louisiana will continue to have the worst pay gap between men and women in the nation.
The House labor committee voted 9-5 against the proposals after a contentious hearing. The vote split along party lines, with Republicans opposed and Democrats in support of the bills.
Women in Louisiana make just 66 cents to every dollar earned by a man, according to equal pay bill advocates. That number plummets further for black and Latino women, who each make less than 55 cents for every dollar made by a man, their statistics show.
Though the bills were different, both would have prohibited employers from paying women less than men with similar skills and similar positions.
“The facts are that Louisiana is going in the wrong direction,” said Julie Schwam Harris, an equal pay advocate.
Republicans argued that the proposals would open a floodgate of lawsuits, penalizing employers who didn’t realize they were paying women less. The critics pointed to existing laws protecting employees from intentional pay discrimination.
But Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat who sponsored one of the bills, said it’s hard to know whether an employer is discriminating on purpose. And besides, he said, whether it’s unintentional or not, pay discrimination is nonetheless discrimination.
Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said the pay disparity statistics were skewed. The scales could be tipped by men who work in lucrative — and male-dominated — industries like construction and off-shore oil drilling, he said.
“I’m hoping that market forces will remedy this situation,” said Harris, a businessman whose endeavors include a fried chicken shack. He questioned whether the state needs a law that he described as onerous for business “when market forces are possibly taking care of this?”
At times the committee debate was heated. Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, sponsor of one of the bills, was outraged that Republicans, including several women on the committee, opposed bills like hers.
“We’re fighting a battle here that is being fought against women,” Norton said. “We, as women, should continue to fight for what is right.”
Then she directed her ire toward men who opposed the bill in the committee, calling it a “disgrace” and a “sad day in America” to have a “man come up here and fight against women.”
That earned a sharp rebuke from Lance Harris, who told Norton that her “tirade” was not appreciated and added that a committee room is not “a pulpit for someone to come up here and disparage members of this body.”