Mississippi is now the only state in the nation without an equal pay law after Alabama passed one in 2019. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi House with an overwhelming, bipartisan vote and little debate on Thursday passed an equal pay bill, which would provide state legal recourse for employees paid less for the same work based on sex.

House Bill 770 passed 111-5 and now heads to the Senate, where a similar measure, Senate Bill 2451, is also pending. 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.

Mississippi is the last state in the nation without an equal pay provision in state law. Bipartisan support has been growing for such a law, but past efforts failed. 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 unwarranted lawsuits.

During brief floor debate on Thursday, Rep. Dana Criswell, R-Olive Branch, asked Judiciary A Chairwoman Angela Cockerham, author of the bill, “Do you know how many women have had to use the federal law in the last year?”

“Sometimes we pass laws just for the sake of passing laws,” Criswell said. “We are passing a law now and we don’t even know if it’s going to help.”

Cockerham, an Independent from Magnolia, responded: “If it’s one woman, gentleman, it’s one too many.” She asked male lawmakers to think about their daughters, if they came home from their first job and told them they were making less money than a coworker with the same experience doing the same work.

Rep. Dan Eubanks, R-Walls, asked Cockerham if the bill takes into account “maternity leave … differential costs for the employer for maternity leave” and whether the measure would result in men requesting maternity leave for parity.

“Men can already get maternity leave now,” Cockerham responded. “… This bill does apply to men, too. If they are doing the same work and not being paid as much, it would apply.”

U.S. Census data shows women make up 51.5% of the population in Mississippi and more than 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.

READ MORE: Equal pay for women: Is this the year Mississippi will join rest of 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.

Those voting no on the House bill Thursday were: Criswell and Reps. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, Chris Brown, R-Nettleton, Steve Hopkins, R-Southaven, and Brady Williamson, R-Oxford.

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian voted present. Reps. Eubanks, Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville and Steve Horne, R-Meridian, did not vote. Reps. Larry Byrd, R-Petal and Robin Robinson, R-Laurel, were absent.

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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.