By Julie Schwam Harris
I feel compelled to set the record straight. Owen Courreges recently published a piece opposing a meaningful Equal Pay for Women bill and opposing State Rep. Helena Moreno’s actions to promote women’s equality in elected representation, economic opportunity and freedom from fear of violence.
It is critical to recognize the link between the two events that inspired Moreno to action with the “It’s No Joke” campaign. Rep. Havard’s sexist “joke” about a bill trying to prevent young strippers from being mired in potentially dangerous situations on May 18 and the defeat of a good compromise Equal Pay bill on May 19 are linked because they are two sides of the same coin – sexism and unintended discrimination against women – that are hurting women, families and the economy in Louisiana.
Rep. Havard’s “joke” illustrated archaic attitudes some men have toward women that affect policy, lawmaking, hiring, work environment and pay decisions. I do believe he did not mean any harm to women or girls (he even voted for the bill) and neither do the overwhelming number of employers who unintentionally discriminate against women in the workplace. But the statistics show that women and the families they support suffer the unintended consequences of pay not being equal. And our economy suffers by forcing government to subsidize families where full time working women are not able to make ends meet on discriminatory salaries.
Louisiana would not be last in the country for what women earn on average compared to men – 65 cents for women overall and 48 cents for African American women to the dollar for men – if the laws on the books were adequate. In fact the current laws are ineffective and riddled with loopholes and, in essence, require an employee to prove that any discrimination was intentional.
The bill that advocates of Equal Pay supported – SB 254 – went to great lengths to avoid the falsely inflated fear of lawsuits that is being used by some to kill meaningful efforts to address the problem of pay inequities in the workplace. SB 254 established a procedure to support discussion between employee and employer — and the use of a neutral third party, the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights, if needed — to determine whether or not gender-based discrimination caused the difference in pay. The proposed law, like current law, clearly allowed differences to be based on bona fide reasons like (but not limited to) education, experience, productivity, time on the job – all the reasons for rewarding one employee over another regardless of gender. The key element missing in current law is protection from retaliation for even asking about wage differences. How can you find out if you are being discriminated against if you can be fired for asking?
We were grateful this year for the bipartisan support of so many male and female legislators and particularly Gov. John Bel Edwards on issues like Equal Pay that will help Louisiana citizens and the economy as a whole to thrive. We support the election of more women particularly because diversity brings a healthier dialogue on all of the issues that affect us.
We applaud Rep. Moreno’s renewed energy directed at policies and practices affecting women and we hope to similarly engage Rep. Havard, who is respected by many for being an independent legislator on issues important to working people. We need legislators like him on our side in trying to level the playing field for women and low paid workers in general. Maybe young women would be less attracted to dancing in strip clubs if they could make a good living in minimum wage jobs!
Julie Schwam Harris, a resident of Uptown New Orleans, is co-chair of the Legislative Agenda for Women.