On Thursday, the Mississippi Legislature sent the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act to Gov. Tate Reeves’ desk, potentially paving the way for the Magnolia State to end its distinction as the only state without such a law. But the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, a leading group that has lobbied for legislation guaranteeing equal pay for women for years, was not celebrating.
“We are asking Governor Tate Reeves to veto the ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work Act,’” the organization declared in a statement yesterday, under the heading, “Mississippi Goddamn! Mississippi Lawmakers Pass A Sham of An ‘Equal Pay’ Law.”
After the Mississippi House passed House Bill 770 in late January, the MSBWR’s State Leader, Cassandra Welchlin, told the Mississippi Free Press that it was “the opposite of an equal-pay bill in that it rubber stamps an employer’s decision to pay women less for equal work than a man because of her salary history.”
House Bill 770’s text says that it would prohibit employers from paying “an employee a wage at a rate less than the rate at which an employee of the opposite sex in the same establishment is paid for equal work on a job, the performance of which requires equal skill, effort and responsibility, and which is performed under similar working conditions.”
‘It Also Neglects Mississippi’s Essential Workers’
Despite the fact that the Mississippi Legislature made changes when House and Senate leaders met to forge a compromise bill this month, the MSBWR said in its statement that the bill still fails to pass muster in its views and warned that it “perpetuates gender discrimination and widens the wage gap.”
“Paying a woman less than a man doing the same job based on her salary history or continuity of employment discriminates against women and caregivers. But this sham ‘equal pay’ bill allows employers to do just that,” the MSBWR said. “Without supportive policies—such as pregnancy and breastfeeding accommodations, flexible schedules, and access to childcare—many mothers and family caregivers have no choice but to leave the workforce altogether to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities.
“This results in gaps in the continuity of their employment history, through no fault of their own, which can often set these individuals back in terms of pay and opportunities for advancement once they re-enter the workforce.”
The group also criticized the bill, which passed overwhelmingly among Democrats and Republicans in both chambers, for ignoring pay inequalities that affect women of color at a higher rate.
“Not only does this Act fail to protect women and their wages, but it also neglects Mississippi’s essential workers. It only applies to employees who work 40+ hours weekly and employers with five or more employees,” the MSBWR statement says.
“This act is significantly more narrow than the federal Equal Pay Act, which applies to all employers and employees, regardless of size and hours worked. Part-time employees experience pay discrimination and are predominantly women, so it is especailly important for them to be protected.”
The bill gives employees two years “from the day the employee knew or should have known his or her employer was in violation of this act” to file a claim,” but the MSBWR said that claimants often need more time because “significant secrecy around pay means it often takes many years for an employee to determine if they are being paid fairly.”
In an op-ed the Mississippi Free Press published in February, national equal-pay activist Lilly Ledbetter warned that the legislation risked “widening Mississippi’s gender wage gap and stripping Mississippians of their rights.”
Ledbetter was at the center of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case in which she challenged the unequal pay she had received while working at a tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., over a nearly two-decade period.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, under federal law, she could have sued only with 180 days of her employers’ decision to pay her at a lower rate—not over each subsequent paycheck. In 2009, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows workers to challenge all discriminatory paychecks.
Welchlin told the Mississippi Free Press in February that a “good equal pay bill” for Mississippi must include four components: It must address disparities based not only on gender, but also race; it must ban the use of salary history to determine wages; it must provide protections against retaliation; and it must be enforceable so that women can recover damages.
The MSBWR said they had suggested amendments to lawmakers to improve the bill, but that the Legislature had not adopted their proposals.
‘A Critical Step Forward’
Mississippi House Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, the Mississippi Equal Pay For Equal Work Act’s sponsor, called the bill’s passage “an important day in Mississippi history.”
“We now have an equal pay statute here in our state,” she said. “With the enactment of this bill, we can address gender pay disparities via a state cause of action. Particularly for Mississippi, it’s important that equal pay is moving forward as the number of women in the workforce increases, all while taking care of their families and their own personal needs. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re happy to provide another remedy for our constituents.”
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, the state’s first woman to serve in the role and a longtime advocate of equal pay, celebrated the legislation’s approval on Wednesday, saying in a press release that “the Legislature has taken a critical step forward for empowering women by passing a law promoting equal pay for equal work for Mississippi women.”
Fitch did not express any concerns about the bill’s specific provisions.
“When Governor Reeves signs this bill into law, we will join the rest of the nation in promoting the basic fairness of equal pay,” she said. “We will take a giant leap forward in closing the twenty-seven percent pay gap—a pay gap that makes it harder for working women and their families, that leads to young Mississippi women taking their talents beyond our borders, and that perpetuates the cycle of poverty in our state.”