- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s state senators chose anti-discrimination arguments over concerns about frivolous lawsuits Tuesday, narrowly backing an equal pay proposal in what has become an annual fight in the Legislature.

With a 21-16 vote, senators sent the measure by Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, to the House for consideration. But it is expected to run into problems there. The House labor committee killed two similar equal pay bills last month.

Murray’s bill describes the state’s policy as “all employees shall be compensated equally for work that is the same in kind and quality,” with no distinction made because of a person’s gender. It outlines a course for legal action if a worker claims to be underpaid.

The provisions would only apply to any employer with 50 full-time equivalent workers or more. It allows for different wage rates to be paid based on seniority, merit, production quality, experience, education and training level.

Supporters of the proposal point to data showing Louisiana women on average are paid only about 66 cents for every dollar a man earns, among the worst pay gaps in the country.

Murray said that although the state has a prohibition against pay discrimination on the books, “we just don’t have the teeth in the law to enforce it.” As for a federal law, he said it’s not strong enough to ensure protections against wage disparities.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, a bill supporter, said the state already has decided that it prohibits discrimination based on gender.

“This is the follow-through on the promise insofar as putting the enforcement mechanism behind it,” he said.

Critics said the measure would open new avenues for unjustified legal action against businesses. Pay discrimination would be banned whether it was intentional or unintentional, one of several areas of criticism for business organizations that say it could open the door to a flood of lawsuits.

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a commercial contractor, suggested an electrician working on a construction site could argue he should be paid the same rate as a plumber at the site and could file a lawsuit.

“This bill will allow you to file suit against me because I don’t pay electricians and plumbers the same,” Donahue said.

Murray replied that the two jobs wouldn’t meet the standard for similar work. But Donahue said if both workers had the same years of experience, they could claim the specialized trades are equivalent and try to take the pay dispute to court.

“I think it would be frivolous and it would be laughed out of court,” Murray said.

___

Online:

Senate Bill 219 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

Senate vote on the bill: https://1.usa.gov/1Phja0m

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