Study Ranks Louisiana Second Worst State For Equal Pay

Jul 31, 2012

Earlier this year Congress voted down the Paycheck Fairness Act, a measure that would have made it easier for workers to address suspected wage discrimination with their employers.

Louisiana has been ranked one of the worst offenders when it comes to paying women less than men for doing the same job. Efforts by equal pay advocates to make changes at the state level have failed.

It's lunchtime in Baton Rouge. The crowd at this sushi restaurant is much like Louisiana's workforce - roughly half men and women. But if who pays for lunch is based on who has the bigger pay check many more men than women should be picking up the tab.

Elieen Deharo pays for her own lunch.

But the the biologist, who works at a primate research center, has had to fight for equal pay throughout her career.

In the ‘70s, she was hired to work in a lab at LSU Medical School. A man was hired to work in the same lab, doing the same job, less than six weeks later. Deharo overheard him say he was making 20-percent more than she was.

Outraged, she went to her boss to ask him why her coworker was being paid more.

"And quote-un-quote he said, 'Because he's a man'. And I said, 'What relevance is that?' And he said, 'Well he has a family.'," said Deharo. "I said, 'Uh, correct me if I'm wrong but he has a wife and a dog. I have a husband and a child. Does my child rate less than his dog?' And he didn't answer me, so I stormed out of there. I was really ticked off."

The next day her boss called her into his office, praised for her recent good work and gave her a 20-percent raise.

Roughly four decades later, an annual study by the American Association of University Women ranks Louisiana 50th out of 51 for pay equity. Women in Louisiana make about 67-percent of what men do, fully a third less on average.

Louisiana's industry make-up is skewed toward male-dominated oil, gas and petrol, which accounts for much of the disparity here. But the AAUW study says some of pay gap is left unexplained by women's life and choices.

Louisiana Pay Equity Lobby Director Camille Moran said stories like Deharo's - where women begin with a lower salary than their male counterparts - are at the root of the pay equity issue facing women all over Louisiana.

"They may get the same promotions and the same raises but they never catch up to a man because they have started out lower," said Moran. "And this is just a practice that businesses have been following for years."

State lawmakers proposed legislation this year that would have made it illegal for an employer to pay a worker less than another worker of the opposite sex for the same job.

"So what we're saying is we want to substitute a non-capricious system for determining pay for one that is determined by politicians and bureaucrats ultimately. That's dangerous."

That's LSU Economist Bob Newman. He said wage regulation should be left up to the competitive market, not to government regulation.

The state regulations proposed last session failed in committee. Opponents say the Equal Pay Act signed by President Kennedy in 1963 and two existing state statutes addressing the issue are enough. The laws already on the books in Louisiana prohibit intentional employee discrimination based on race, religion, nationality and sex.

Cassie Felder, head of a small law firm in Baton Rouge, said pay equity laws would take away her ability as an employer to pay someone more for doing a better job.

"Particularly for attorneys and professionals, there are different levels there where I could hire someone who might come in 9 to 5. They want a staff position, they're okay with less money and I'm okay with paying them less," said Felder. "But having someone else at the same level who is an achiever and wants to be a partner and is working really hard, well, I need to be able to provide that person with an incentive to work for me or they're going to go somewhere else."

Pay Equity Lobbyist Camille Moran said 38 states have some sort of pay equity legislation on the books, but Louisiana and most of the southern states are among those that do not. Moran is still hopeful, but said the political climate of the south makes her job very difficult.

"I feel like it's going to be a good while before we really truly, truly are able to pass progressive measures across the board, especially where women's rights are concerned," said Moran. "I feel like it's going to be a while and it's just, it's a different world. We live in a different world."

The only pay equality measure that the state legislature passed this year would have established the Louisiana Equal Pay Task Force to study wage disparities between men and women. But that was vetoed by Governor Bobby Jindal.