What were you wearing?
Shorts and a tank top. In my own home, on a Saturday night in late July. My husband was working late that night, doing inventory. Our three kids were already in bed, when there was a knock at the door. When I answered it, the man – reeking of alcohol – forced his way in and attacked. I said “No!” over and over, but I also remember thinking, “I can withstand anything, as long as he doesn’t get to the children.”
He was caught. We went to court, and he got three years, because they couldn’t prove “intent.” He claimed he was too intoxicated to remember the incident at all.
While the issue of equal pay isn’t traumatically or criminally comparable to rape or sexual assault, the issues of “intent” and the response of victim-blaming both came into play during the Senate floor debate on J.P. Morrell’s SB 117.
The bill would have required companies entering into contracts with the state to abide by Louisiana’s current “Equal Pay for Women Act,” enacted in 2013. It is limited to protecting women who work full time (40 hours per week) in the public sector, i.e., state and local governmental employees.
“This bill seeks to expand that requirement to contracts, since we have privatized so many public functions,” Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) explained. “Equal pay will follow the public dollars.”
Business and industry, of course, opposes it. Their narrative has been “It’s not needed because we already have federal and state wage discrimination laws.” But that 1997 Louisiana law has a large loophole in it – intent.
Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law prohibits employers with 20 or more employees from intentionally discriminating in the compensation of any person on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, pregnancy (including childbirth and related medical conditions), sickle- cell trait, or protected genetic information.
“The inclusion of the word ‘intentionally’ puts the burden on the employee to prove some nefarious purpose,” Morrell explained. “Say you inherit the company from your dad, and he always paid his female employees less. You continue the practice, but your employees have no way to redress the situation, because there’s no way to prove your ‘intent’.”
“What if we removed the word ‘intentional’ from that law?” asked Sen. Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville).
“That’d be great! You want to file that bill, Senator Donahue? I’ll support it!” Morrell replied with a big grin. “What we’re trying to do here, though, is just make sure that companies choosing to contract for taxpayer dollars pay their men and women employees fairly.”
And then, Sen. Sharon Hewitt got up, and spoke about what she had been wearing.
“It was my first job on a drilling rig. I was wearing my brand-new red coveralls, neatly pressed with a sharp crease down the leg; new boots, hard hat. We landed on the platform, and I went looking for the guy in charge. Of course, he was the biggest, baddest, burliest guy there – sleeves torn out of his grease-stained coverall. “I walked over, stuck out my hand, and said, ‘Hi, I’m Sharon, your new engineer’.
“He stuck his hands in his pockets and said, ‘There’s two problems in the oil business. The first is O-rings. The second is women’.”
But, Hewitt said, she couldn’t support this bill.
“We keep hearing women in Louisiana only make 66 cents on the dollar, compared to men. That’s not for the same job – that’s median pay. What we need to close the gender pay gap is more women in traditional male jobs, in STEM careers. We need them to get educated in science, technology, engineering and math.”
In other words, women aren’t trying hard enough for the better-paying jobs. Victim-blaming.
“I am embarrassed to be a citizen of Louisiana after hearing that,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) said. “Senator Hewitt, we do understand that this is a male-dominated world, but we five women in this body don’t have to argue every day to be paid the same $16,500 our 34 male colleagues receive for doing this job.
“Over 50-percent of this state’s population are women, and while 34 of us aren’t, we each promised to represent our constituents equally,” Peterson admonished. “Are the women of this state worth protecting? Are your wives, daughters, sisters, granddaughters worth protecting? Do you want them to hear – like Sharon did – the words of that man in the red jumpsuit? If you don’t use the power that we have with law to change policy, we won’t advance.
“Today is the day of reckoning. You’re with the women, or you’re not,” she concluded.
Morrell gave his closing argument for passage of the bill.
“There is a reason we don’t have Fortune 500 and tech companies here: it’s the perception that we are behind the times,” Morrell advised. “Other states have equal pay laws. They don’t have to piecemeal these protections.
“Public contracts are public dollars. Equal pay in Louisiana is something the vast majority of citizens believe is a ‘no-brainer’. I ask for favorable passage.”
The vote was 18 yeas, 20 nays, with Sen. Hewitt and Sen. Beth Mizell both voting against.
SB 149, which would prohibit employers from terminating employees just because they asked about or talked about their pay, failed 15-23.
SB 162, which would establish a state minimum wage of $8.00 per hour, beginning January 1, 2019, and increase that to $8.50 per hour, starting in 2020, likewise failed, 17-21.
Will the voters of Louisiana just “lie back and enjoy it”?