“Of All We Do Here, These Ought to Be the Easiest”

“If we’re going to talk about family values, we should show we actually value families,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said, as he testified on behalf of equal pay and minimum wage bills in the Senate Labor Committee Thursday. “Of all the things we do here, these ought to be the easiest.” And while the bills advanced to the full Senate for consideration, it wasn’t effortless. SB 117 by Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) would require anyone entering into a contract with any state entity to comply with the Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act. That law, enacted in 2013, only covers full-time workers employed by state governmental agencies. It doesn’t cover part-timers, or those employed in the private sector. Still, there was objection to the new measure from the private sector. “We oppose this bill because Equal Pay is already the law, and we encourage our small business owners to comply with the law,” stated Dawn Starns, director of the Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “Pay inequity is happening, though,” Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) responded. “Women in Louisiana make 66-cents for each dollar a man makes. For women of color, it’s 48-cents on the dollar. As a woman, how do you feel that’s okay?” Starns squirmed in her seat, and stammered a bit, clearly discomfited by the question. Then she squared her shoulders and replied, “I’m here representing small business owners, I can’t speak personally.” Close to 50 green cards were submitted in support of the bill, versus 3 filed in opposition – and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was NOT one of those. The bill was moved favorably, 6-1, with only the committee chairman, Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) voting nay. The governor concentrated his big push on the bills that would raise the minimum wage from the current federally required $7.25 per hour. “Think about what $7.25 actually buys – a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a dozen eggs?” Edwards began, provoking laughter from the predominately female public attendees at the hearing. “What?” he asked, turning around from the witness table to look at the audience behind him. “It buys milk and bread, Governor – no eggs,” Sen. Barrow advised, prompting Edwards to blush and chuckle ruefully, himself. “Okay,” he said, grinning. “With the chicken coop at the mansion I haven’t bought eggs in awhile… “Seriously, it’s just simply not enough in 2018. Congress should have done it, but they’ve decided to leave it up to the states. We’re now one of only five states in the country that have not set their own minimum wage,” Edwards said. Jan Moller, the director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a progressive non-profit that works to combat socio-economic disparities in the state, said raising the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour by January 1, 2020, isn’t like paying something for nothing. “Today’s worker is almost two times as productive as his or her counterpart 50 years ago, yet – adjusted for inflation – an hour of twice as productive work is worth less than it was 50 years ago. “Even if you work really hard and play by the rules, you can’t get even – much less ahead,” Moller summarized. “People that make minimum wage generally require government assistance,” remarked Peter Robbins Brown with Step Up Louisiana. “As a taxpayer, that costs me money. And ultimately, as a taxpayer, I’m being forced to subsidize the profits of a business that won’t pay a living wage.” The governor urged the committee, “Move this forward to the Senate floor. Then send it over to House Labor, and help it get to the House floor. Send it to my desk so I can sign it.” “Give the people of this state an opportunity to go to work and fend for themselves,” urged the bill’s author, Sen. Troy Carter (D-New Orleans). Yet SB 162 – a constitutional amendment to let the voters choose whether or not to raise the minimum wage – is opposed by the “usual suspects”. LABI, NFIB, the Louisiana Chemical Association, Associated Builders and Contractors all filed cards in opposition. On a straight party line vote of 4-3, the bill did move forward to the full Senate for consideration. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it will need a 2/3 vote of the entire Senate to advance further.