Advocates for equal pay for women put purses on Mississippi lawmakers' desks. Each purse contained a cookie with "56c" on it, noting Black women make an average of 56 cents for every $1 a white male makes for the same work. Credit: Geoff Pender

When lawmakers arrived at the Capitol on Thursday, they found purses on their desks, each containing a cookie with “56c” on it — to represent the 56 cents on the dollar Black women in Mississippi receive compared to white men for the same work.

“Equal pay matters to women’s pocketbooks,” said Cassandra Welchlin, director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, flanked by more than a dozen women at the Capitol. The group put the purses on all 174 lawmakers’ desks. They also contained the group’s call to fix what it says are glaring flaws in pending equal pay legislation.

READ MORE: House passes equal pay with bipartisan vote

In Mississippi, the last state in the nation to not provide state legal recourse for employees paid less for the same work based on sex, several equal pay bills are pending in the Legislature this year.

The House last week overwhelmingly passed House Bill 770 passed on to the Senate, where two measures, Senate Bill 2451 and Senate Bill 2452, are also pending. The 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.

The Black Women’s Roundtable says HB 770, authored by Rep. Angela Cockerham, “is the opposite of an equal pay bill.” They said it “rubber stamps” an employer decision to pay women less by allowing them to use salary history as as basis for pay. It also would apply only to full time workers, and to employers with more than five employees.

It also lacks any specific protection for women of color and requires a woman to waive federal rights to a claim if they bring a state claim. During passage of the bill in the House, Cockerham said women would have to choose whether to bring a state or federal claim and would “only get one bite at the apple.”

Senate Bill 2451, authored by Republican Sens. Brice Wiggins and Nicole Akins Boyd, contains “glaring flaws,” the Black Women’s Roundtable leaders said. It requires “pleading with particularity” — a high burden of proof for employees, it would provide less damages than available under federal law and includes no retaliation protection, among other problems, they said.

Wiggins recently said the bill he co-authored is “a conservative approach.”

“(That means) 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.”

BWR called for lawmakers to amend the two bills at the forefront with the Legislature, or to instead support SB2452, authored by Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, which BWR said “has strong and inclusive language that should be supported.”

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 56 cents and 54 cents, respectively, 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.

BWR members on Thursday said that closing the pay gap in Mississippi would reduce by half the number of women in poverty and by one-third the number of children in poverty.

At a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, Maria Serratos, a Mississippi State University student majoring in engineering, joined the call for equal pay.

“Why should I stay in a state that devalues me by offering 54 cents for the same work a man makes $1?” Serratos said. “If women in this state are not offered a fair shot at success, this state will not grow.”

Editor’s note: Black Women’s Roundtable has placed paid advertisements on Mississippi Today’s website. Mississippi Today maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. As such, advertisers have no influence or control over Mississippi Today’s editorial decisions.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

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.