- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. John Bel Edwards described Louisiana’s worst-in-the-nation pay gap as an embarrassment, as he renewed his push for an equal pay law Friday at a summit held to draw attention to the wage disparity.

The Democratic governor and his wife headlined the event, seeking to bolster support for a law that would require private businesses in Louisiana to pay the same wages to men and women with the same jobs.

Edwards told the majority-female audience that women in Louisiana earn 66 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, and he said the disparity worsens for women of color. He and first lady Donna Edwards framed a wage equality law as a way to improve economic conditions for Louisiana’s families and children.

“When a woman goes to the grocery store, it’s not 34 cents less because she’s there, or the gasoline’s not 34 cents less because she’s buying it,” Donna Edwards said. “Just think, if women were paid equally, we could possibly cut poverty substantially.”

Lawmakers will consider the proposal, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, in the legislative session that begins next month.

Similar legislation won backing from the Senate last year, but was rejected by the House labor committee amid opposition from business groups and Republicans who say it would encourage unnecessary litigation.

The measure again will face difficulty in the majority-GOP Legislature.

Critics say the proposal is unnecessary because current law provides employee protections. Some opponents say data showing pay gaps don’t account for differences in education and experience, or choices women make in the hours worked and time away for family obligations.

Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, vice chairman of the House labor committee, said equal pay legislation remains difficult to pass in the House. Broadwater said he’s willing to consider a bill, but he’s cautious about what language could win his backing.

“We have a remedy in state law” for handling wage discrimination complaints, he said. “If we can improve that process without making it harder, as well as not placing unreasonable burdens on employers, then I’m willing to consider that.”

The governor said wage disparities put unnecessary strain on families and cause more reliance on government-financed assistance programs. He said if current laws were working, the wage gap wouldn’t exist.

Morrell’s bill would extend an equal pay law governing state workers to cover private industry. It would only apply to businesses that employ 50 workers or more in Louisiana, and only to full-time employees. The measure lays out a process for filing a complaint, and later possibly a lawsuit, by employees who believe they have been paid unequally.

Equal pay proponents also are pushing other legislation, to end what they call “wage secrecy” by requiring private companies to provide details about salaries they pay, so women can learn if they are being paid less than their male counterparts.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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