BATON ROUGE – Although hardly anyone would argue against men and women earning equal pay, a new bill by state Sen. JP Morrell (D-Dist. 3) met opposition by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and other state senators earlier this year.
What critics find troubling about Senate Bill 254 is that small businesses may become even more exposed to lawsuits under the legislation.
Morrell has admitted that SB 254 would allow more venues for litigation, but defended that the language of the bill would provide multiple ways to avoid an accusation ever reaching court. This includes a 60-day period for an employer to refute the accusation or pay the employee equally, followed by a review by the panel of the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights. Only after the panel reviews the case can it be taken to court, though that is one of the concerns of those who oppose the bill.
“We believe this issue is a trial lawyers dream," Dawn Starns, state director of the NFIB, told the Louisiana Record. "Further complicating the law and creating new causes of action against an employer are part of why we oppose this type of legislation."
Critics have also expressed concerns with how the new bill would allow investigations into businesses if they were accused of unequal pay, which could publicize the business’ benefits information, causing harm to their ability to compete with other businesses.
“Equal pay is a mandated employment practice at both the federal and state level,” Starns explained. “However, private businesses must keep salary and benefit packages private to remain competitive in the marketplace. This is why you often see salary ranges provided. Once an employee is hired, though, businesses are prohibited from having any type of policy which bans discussion of pay and benefits, as per the National Labor Relations Board.”
Although Morrell and other members of the state government agree that it is important to protect small businesses and competition within the economy, unequal pay is one of the most prevalent problems in Louisiana.
Gov. John Bel Edwards expressed his concern about wages in a speech before the legislative committee reviewing the bill.
“On top of not paying our workers a living wage, women in Louisiana make an average 66 cents on the dollar compared to men,” Edwards said. "We are the worst state in the Union for pay equity."
Due to the overwhelming issue concerning equal pay, Morrell was willing to amend parts of the bill, before it passed the Senate. It has since been moved to the Republican-dominated House, where Morrell predicted it will have more trouble passing as-is. SB 254 has already seen so many changes, however, that finding an even better middle ground will prove to be challenging.
“The bill is exceedingly convoluted and I'm not sure there are any amendments that can make it better,” Starns said. “We believe the bill may be unfixable and oppose it in its current form. However, if amendments were drafted, we are certainly open to a dialogue.”