Dome of the State Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Bipartisan support has grown in recent years for an equal pay law in Mississippi — the last state in the nation to fail to provide legal recourse for women paid less than men for the same work.

Bills are pending in both the Senate — which has passed equal pay bills twice in recent years — and the House, which killed those Senate bills but in 2018 passed a bill with an equal pay amendment attached and appears to have more support for the measure this year.

“I am pleased that equal pay for equal work has gained so much momentum this year,” said Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who has championed equal pay legislation for years.  “It is a simple but powerful way that Mississippi can empower women.  It demonstrates our commitment to affirming the inherent dignity of women and ensuring basic human fairness.”

Judiciary A Chairwoman Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, has authored House Bill 770, which has been passed out of committee and awaits a full House vote. Cockerham said that could come as early as this week, and that she hopes the measure will have bipartisan support.

“I am grateful that we have gotten it out of committee and before the full chamber,” Cockerham said. “… This would be monumental for the state of Mississippi and for the women of this this state.”

Senate Judiciary A Chairman Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and Sen. Nicole Akins Boyd, R-Oxford, have co-authored Senate Bill 2451.

Both bills would create a state “actionable right” for any employee paid less for equal work based on sex. Federal law already provides such a right, but taking an employer to task in federal court is a more difficult, and often more costly task for aggrieved employees.

READ MORE: Will Mississippi continue to short-change women on equal pay?

“The House has a number of cosponsors, bipartisan, for their bill as I understand, so I’m optimistic and hopeful that this is the year,” Boyd said. “I think this would send an important message to our young women that you are valued and that we want you to stay in Mississippi.”

Boyd said she recently held an informal “focus group” of young Mississippi law school students, and that to a person, both male and females in the group voiced strong support for equal pay.

Wiggins said the attorney general has continued to champion the legislation, and he said the Senate bill mirrors Alabama’s law, which was passed in 2019, leaving Mississippi as the only state without such a measure.

“This is a conservative approach — meaning the state will no longer be last on this issue, but it will not infringe on the rights of businesses,” Wiggins said. “… Part of the debate has been that people don’t want the state injecting itself into private business, and this minimizes that, while allowing a cause of action (for employees) on a state level … I look at my daughter, and I want this to tell her that the state of Mississippi is good for women in the workforce and for our next generation of women. This is about getting the right policy and I believe our bill does that.”

Over decades, legislative efforts to pass an equal pay law have been quietly snuffed out in committee, typically without a vote and typically without much public discussion by opponents. Opponents’ stated rationale has been that there are already federal equal pay laws, and that they don’t want to put undue regulations on businesses or cause a bunch of unwarranted lawsuits.

But efforts to pass an equal pay law have grown stronger in recent years.

Recent studies show women make up 51.5% of the population in Mississippi and nearly half of its workforce. They are the primary breadwinners for a majority — 53.5% — of families in this state, which is the highest rate in the nation.

But women working full time in Mississippi earn 27% less than men, far greater than the 19% gap nationwide. That gap grows worse for Black and Latina women in Mississippi, who are paid just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

Women make up nearly 60% of those in Mississippi’s workforce living below the poverty line. The state has continually ranked worst or near-worst in most every ranking for working women.

Lawmakers on the Senate Labor Committee heard these and other similar statistics and issues in hearings in the fall. Senate Labor Chairman Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, vowed to push the issue again this year.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you where the opposition has come from,” said Horhn. “This just seems like a no-brainer, and it’s time to get this done.”

But it will likely again be (quietly) opposed by business interests and ultimately decided by a Legislature that is only about 16% female, and remains much whiter and more male than the state of Mississippi at large.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.