Former Mississippi Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy. Credit: AP file photo

Debate over equal pay and raising the minimum wage in the Magnolia State could be renewed with the introduction of two bills early in the 2017 legislative session.

House Minority Leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, authored House Bills 8 and 9, both filed Jan. 3.

House Bill 8, called the Mississippi Minimum Wage Law, would establish the state minimum wage at $9 an hour.

Baria said that the law would specifically set the state minimum to the $9 level for private employers while keeping state employees at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for the time being.

He noted that the bill’s language may have to be clarified, because there is already a law that gives the Legislature the right to set a statewide minimum wage. His bill does not attempt to change that authority, Baria said.

Treasurer Lynn Fitch has reached out to Baria and offered assistance on a second draft of the bill that includes language from a similar law in Massachusetts, according to Fitch’s chief of staff Michelle Williams.

Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn “does not believe that the Legislature should be the one to raise the minimum wage,” spokeswoman Meg Annison wrote in an email. “He favors the free market to dictate wages.”

Baria said he settled on the a figure by looking at states he believed were comparable to Mississippi demographically, particularly Maine, where the state minimum wage is $9 an hour. Setting the minimum wage at that amount would not be a jarring change for employers, but would have an immediate impact on those employed, he said.

“If we can lift these folks out of poverty, that would be beneficial for all of us,” he said.

Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said the amount should be higher.

She referenced the Fight For $15, a nationwide advocacy campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for fast food workers, home care workers and others. That amount is likely not feasible in Mississippi, she said, but $12 would be more acceptable.

“You have to ask for more. You have to talk reality here,” she said, noting that many workers already make $9 an hour.

“It would be great if I could pay everybody $15 an hour but I don’t think Mississippi is ready for that,” Baria said. “I didn’t even go there because we are Mississippi and we are the poorest state in the country.”

Equal pay

House Bill 9, known as the Evelyn Gandy Fair Pay Act, calls for equal pay for men and women.

The bill aims to “provide that the Legislature discourages wage discrimination against women,” identify when illegal employment practices occur, and clarify the “remedies” when they do.

Baria said he’s filed similar bills in previous years, inspired by the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women working in full-time wage and salary positions earned 81 percent of what men in the same positions earned in 2015.

“There are just too many instances out there where women are equally qualified, if not more, working the same jobs as a man and being paid less,” Baria said.

The bill’s namesake is Evelyn Gandy, the first woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi, as state treasurer in 1968. She was later elected insurance commissioner in 1972 and lieutenant governor in 1976.

Treasurer Fitch said the lack of a pay equity law was holding the state back.

“If we want to attract businesses to Mississippi and ask them to invest in our State, we need to invest in our workforce with pay equity laws,” she said in an email.

Fitch said she asked a state economist to conduct a study on the pay gap in Mississippi last fall. The study, authored by economist Sondra Collins and published in December 2016 by the University Research Center at Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, states the gender pay gap in Mississippi is “approximately 27 percent,” compared to almost 19 percent nationally. Collins said after adjusting for education, experience, and industry, the Mississippi figure drops to about 18 percent.

“I hope that this report will be just the kind of catalyst the Legislature needs to support this legislation,” she said.

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, said she’s glad a bill named after one of her “sheroes” has been introduced, but the fact that a law is necessary to ensure equal pay is problematic.

“I think that it’s great that a bill has been introduced, but on the other hand it’s a shame that in 2017 we have to go to such measures to ensure equal pay for equal work,” Sykes said.

Sykes filed her own bill in this arena—House Bill 366 would increase the state minimum wage to $10 an hour.

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson Credit: Gil Ford Photography

“It’s imperative that our businesses and organizations follow the intent of making work and pay equal because women oftentimes are the primary breadwinners for their families and they have to care for their children, pay childcare and the like,” she said. “It’s just so unfair that in these times women are still receiving less for the same work.”

Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, said Baria’s bill is “bad policy that will hurt women and families.”

“Everyone, both men and women, should be equal under the law, and we already have laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex,” Taylor said. “HB 9 is broadly written and will likely lead to an increase in complaints and litigation against employers who have done nothing wrong.”

Baria said he’s filed versions of both bills before unsuccessfully, but hopes this year will be different.

“I start every session with a fresh hope that things might change a little bit, but I don’t have any assurances that it’s going to die, nor do I have any assurances that it’s going to be voted on in committee,” he said.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.