By Leslie D. Rose
Each April, National Equal Pay Day unites women countrywide in the fight to earn equal pay for their work. Of the affected, Louisiana women have consecutively ranked 49 in the country for most unequally paid.
On April 8, they took the steps of the State Capital in an effort led by the American Association of University Women to bring attention to the issue. The women dressed in red to symbolize the negative pay status. Activities throughout the day included conversations with legislators, a press conference and proclamations for equal pay at committee meetings.
This year the symbolic event was just one day before the April 9 blockage of the Equal Pay bill in the Senate. Senate Republicans shot down the legislation meant to close the pay gap, leaving the bill to fall short by 60 votes.
When the Equal Pay Act was signed into law by President Kennedy in 1963, women were earning an average of 59 cents on the dollar compared to men. The latest census data shows that women in the United States working full-time year-round earn on average 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.
In Louisiana, women earn on average only 67 cents for every dollar a man earns, two cents less than a year ago. The statistics are based on women of all ethnicities versus white men in similar fields. The numbers are lower when comparing the salaries of white men to that of women-of-color, with Latinas earning 57 cents for every dollar a man earns and African American women earning 49 cents.
“Sadly, Louisiana ranks second-to-last in equal pay for women,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act. “Equal pay is not only about women; it’s also about supporting and strengthening middle class families so they can build a prosperous future for themselves and their communities. Our sisters, mothers and daughters in Louisiana and the country deserve our support, and the Senate should support this bill.”
One of the groups leading Louisiana’s fight is the Independent Woman’s Organization (IWO). According to IWO President Nakisha Ervin-Knott, the gender wage gap is an urgent problem for women and families, as it directly affects long term Social Security and pension benefits which are built based on lifetime earnings.
“The immediate earnings that are lost could be used for day to day necessities like food, utilities and housing, and could go to college tuition, a down payment on a home or savings to start a business,” Ervin-Knott said.
IWO Legislative Chair Julie Schwam Harris, who is also a volunteer advocate with the Legislative Agenda for Women for equal pay, said that even though the numbers are really low, it is important for women of all ages to understand that they are not helpless in the fight for equality.
Efforts of Louisiana women’s groups have not been in vain. Last year the legislature passed an equal pay bill, however it was limited to only state public workers, leaving more work to be done overall.
Schwam said that equal pay is a complicated issue with legislature being just one part. Of the other problems that align, Schwam continued that women need to be encouraged to go for higher paying jobs; workforce practices of salary secrecy must dissipate or be relaxed; and stereotypical women jobs, such as care giving and administrative duties need to receive respect for pay to rise.
“Women have been undervalued economically throughout history,” she said. “When you think of the kind of work women have provided, like the care giving of children in the home – it has never been paid. But we do know in the workplace with similar jobs as men, women are being paid less and that’s the issue we have to tackle, legislatively.”
Steps to bring awareness to the issue are happening across the country. The White House is working toward creating laws that align with equal pay, such as ones that will allow flexibility for employees to discuss pay. There are states that have passed equal pay legislation and also some that have raised the minimum wage, which Schwam said she considers a step toward equal pay since women are more likely to work minimum wage jobs or underpaid professions.
Later this year, several bills will be heard in the Louisiana legislature that combined could achieve overall equal pay. One bill seeks to protect disclosure and will allow people to discuss their wages.
“We are trying to make sure that no matter where you work or who you work for, there is a process and an ability to gain knowledge through being able to talk about your wages and being protected from retaliation and be sure that you can get your complaint looked at carefully and rationally and some help brought to you if there is indeed a problem,” Schwam said of the upcoming bill.
Schwam said that equal pay should be of the interests of businesses, the government and the economy, as more money being paid out means more money going back. She also said she wants to encourage young people to take a role in the fight.
“What young women need to understand is that this is going to lead to a lifelong deficit of earnings. Young people need to understand that we really need to equalize women’s pay so that our society is fair and everyone has a chance, if they work, to live out those dreams.”