FILE - LA Sen. Sharon Hewitt

Louisiana state Senator Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell

Opponents of a piece of equal pay legislation presented this week in the Louisiana Senate were accused by some of the bill’s backers of being insensitive to the needs of working women in the state and failing to take action to reduce what they claim is a wide wage gap between men and women.

But the senators who spoke against the bill were adamant that their stance was not anti-woman because, they say, the supposed wage gap in the state is not nearly as dire as some have suggested.

Introduced by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, Senate Bill 117 would expand provisions in the Louisiana code that currently only apply to state employees. The Equal Pay for Women Act, passed in 2013, requires that male and female state employees doing “substantially similar” work and with similar education and experience levels be paid the same amount. If a worker feels they are being paid incorrectly and their employer disagrees, the worker can appeal to the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights.

“If an employer fails to resolve the dispute to the satisfaction of such employee within the time provided herein [60 days], the employee may file a complaint with the commission requesting an investigation of the complaint,” the statute says.

Non-state employees in Louisiana have legal protections as well and can sue or appeal to the commission if they feel that they are subject to gender-based wage discrimination, but proponents of SB117 say that those cases are too hard to win. This is to blame for what they describe as a wage gap where women in Louisiana, they say, make 66 cents for every dollar that men make.

SB117 would extend the provisions that currently apply just to state workers to also include employees of private contractors that do business with the state. The rationale behind this, Morrell said, is that those workers are being paid in essence with taxpayer funds, and therefore they should be subject to the same kinds of rules as state employees when it comes to equal pay.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, challenged the premise of the bill, arguing that the oft-quoted “66 cents on the dollar” measure is misleading. Contacted by Watchdog.org this week to talk about SB117, she said that the 66 cents metric is based on comparing the median pay of all men and women.

“This means that if you lined up all of the men in Louisiana from the highest paid to the lowest paid and chose the man standing in the middle, did the same thing with the women, then compared the pay of the man and the woman standing in the middle of their lines, the woman would be making 66 cents on the dollar compared to the man,” Hewitt said. “It has nothing to do with what their jobs are.”

Therefore, claims by proponents of bills like SB117 that women are paid 66 percent of what a man does for equal work are not true, she said.

“Bottom line for me is to encourage more women to go into higher paying careers, like STEM, and for businesses to create policies that allow employees to better balance work and family,” she said. “This will help close the gender pay gap.”

The 66 cents on the dollar metric originates with the American Association of University Women, which also cites a national discrepancy of 76 cents on the dollar. But Hewitt pointed to an analysis by PayScale.com, which adjusted for men and women in similar jobs and found that in those cases, women made 98 cents for each dollar that a man made. That 2 cent difference is statistically insignificant, Hewitt said.

A message sent to Sen. Morrell seeking comment on the bill was not returned this week.

SB117 was part of a raft of wage-related bills endorsed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards that have all failed to advance so far. He came before the Senate Labor Committee on March 15 to push for their passage, saying specifically of SB117 that it was needed because existing laws were insufficient.

“Another excuse that we hear is, ‘Well, we've got laws on the books,” Edwards said during the committee meeting. “If the laws on the books were effective and adequate, we wouldn't be dead last. That seems self-evident, but we hear that all the time.”

During floor debate this week, Morrell insisted that if state contractors found the terms of SB117 too difficult to comply with, they could simply choose not to do business with the state.

“There is no right to work for any public entity for public dollars,” he said. “Part of our process is, there are onerous requirements dealing with things such as transparency or other requirements that are put upon businesses that choose to do work with public entities. I would argue that this bill simply presents an additional requirement ...”

Hewitt, during comments on the floor, talked about her experiences with gender-oriented discrimination during her career as an engineer for Shell Oil. She described her first day arriving on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1980s and coming face to face with her new boss, an enormous man who towered over her.

“I stuck my hand out and I said ... I'm the new Shell engineer,” Hewitt said. "And he kind of glared at me, he stuck his hands in his pockets, and he said, ‘There's two problems with the oil business. The first is O-rings,' ” – a piece of equipment that prevents leaks – “ 'and the second problem is women.' ”

Regardless of her personal history, Hewitt said, more regulations and lawsuits would not help in rectifying the issue.

“For example, and this is incredible news, [it was] recently announced in the Baton Rouge area, ExxonMobil, right here in Baton Rouge, four of the five major plants, refineries and pipelines are now led by women,” she said. “This is how you close the pay gap.”

Senate Bill 117 was defeated in a close 20-18 vote, but Morrell made a motion for reconsideration, and his motion is currently scheduled to be considered April 2.

Managing Editor

Delphine Luneau is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. She was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship was named best weekly in Illinois, and she has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.