Democrats in Louisiana want to make unintentional pay discrimination based on gender illegal for private businesses, a move they believe will help bridge the wage gap.
Republicans think the move is unnecessary and will only expose businesses to more lawsuits.
On average, Louisiana women make about 67 cents for every $1 men make, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The state already bans intentional pay discrimination, but only state government workers are protected from unintentional pay discrimination under the Equal Pay for Women Act, which became law last year.
Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, proposes to expand the law to private employers.
According to Julie Schwam Harris, of Legislative Agenda for Women, proving unintentional discrimination requires only evidence that an employer is paying employees unequally for the same work, whereas intentional discrimination requires a tougher legal standard.
“How do you prove what is on someone’s mind?” she said of intentional discrimination.
Her organization is one of several rallying behind the Peterson’s bill, saying it is the best way to close the gap because it is the most common form of discrimination.
President Barack Obama has made closing the gender wage gap a priority and will host a summit next month on issues facing families and women, a key voting bloc in this year’s midterm election.
Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, is unconvinced by Peterson’s bill and has offered a measure emphasizing that intentional pay discrimination is unlawful. The proposal has the backing of the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
The group generally opposes legislation that would create a new cause of legal action against employers. Jim Patterson, the group’s vice president of government relations, said adding unintentional discrimination to the law would be unnecessary and expose businesses to more lawsuits.
“It creates a `gotcha’ situation,” he said.
Stokes agreed, saying unintentional discrimination does not belong in the courts.
“You could make a case for unintentional discrimination even where there is none,” she said.
Opponents of Stokes’ bill argue it would not add any new protections.
“It adds verbage, but it’s not going to get at the problem,” Harris said.
Patterson said Stokes’ measure would simply clarify current laws barring pay discrimination, which he said provide adequate protection.
Eileen DeHaro, 65, disagrees, saying she sees pay discrimination in her career as a research specialist at the Tulane National Primate Research Center. She said universities often pay women professors less than their male colleagues.
She said she experienced discrimination at her first job as a research assistant at LSU Medical School about a decade after the Equal Pay Act passed in 1963. A male colleague was making 20 percent more than her for doing the same work.
“Things have not changed,” she said.
The measures under consideration are Senate Bill 334 and House Bill 956.