By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi could become the final state to enact a law requiring equal pay for equal work by women and men, after the state House and Senate passed the final version of a bill Wednesday.
The bill goes to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, and he has not said whether he will sign it. When he was lieutenant governor, Reeves let a similar bill die.
A 1963 federal law requires equal pay for equal work, but Mississippi is the only state without its own equal pay law. Alabama enacted one in 2019.
The Mississippi bill says a worker must file a lawsuit within two years of when the worker “knew or should have known” about pay discrepancies.
If the lawsuit is successful, the worker could receive court costs, attorneys’ fees and the amount she — or he — should have received to cover the wage gap. No additional financial damages would be allowed.
Cassandra Welchlin, leader of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, advocates for equal pay but said the bill is “harmful” because it would allow an employer to pay a woman less than a man based on the pay history that workers bring into new jobs. She said the bill also allows lower pay if a worker has taken months or years off to care for children or older parents.
“During this pandemic, women have been forced to leave the workforce for caregiving responsibilities,” Welchlin said Wednesday. “It’s just an equal pay bill in name only.”
House Bill 770 says businesses with at least five employees must pay equal wages to women and men who work fulltime jobs that require “equal skill, education, effort and responsibility” and that are done “under similar working conditions.”
Several exceptions are allowed, including seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production and “any factor other than sex,” including salary history and whether there was competition to hire an employee.
Republican Sens. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula and Nicole Boyd of Oxford were among the six lawmakers who negotiated the final version of the bill. Wiggins described it as “business friendly.” Boyd said the bill is “a good step in the right direction.”
“It says to young women, ‘We care about you staying the state of Mississippi.’ We want you to work here, and we want your rights to be protected,'” Boyd said.
Democratic Sen. Angela Turner Ford of West Point voted “present,” which counted neither for nor against the bill. She said said after the vote that employers could save money by paying unequal wages because lawsuits could be difficult to win. Turner Ford also said the bill does not ban unequal pay based on race.
“White men, Black men, white women, Black women — there’s no reason for each of these individuals to work the same job and not receive the same rate of pay,” Turner Ford said.
Separate federal laws ban pay discrimination based on race or disability. Although people can already file federal lawsuits seeking challenging unequal pay based on sex, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said filing a lawsuit in state court could be less expensive.
A 2017 report by the Mississippi University Research Center showed women earned 27% less than men for fulltime work in Mississippi, compared to a 19% wage gap nationwide. The study said some of the gap could be explained by the types of jobs women and men were working, but the unexplained wage gap remained about 18% in Mississippi and about 15% nationwide.
Fitch, a Republican, has pushed for an equal pay law for years. In a statement Wednesday, she called it “basic fairness.”
If Reeves signs the bill into law, Fitch said: “We will take a giant leap forward in closing the 27% 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.”