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Minimum wage, equal pay bills begin advancing in La. Senate

Minimum wage, equal pay bills begin advancing in La. Senate

(Legislative updates and press releases can change daily. Advancement of the following measures and proposals are as of press time Friday morning.)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Labor law changes backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to boost Louisiana's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and to mandate equal pay for women started advancing Thursday in the state Senate.

Over objections from business groups, the Senate labor committee voted 4-3 for a proposal by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, that would raise Louisiana's minimum wage from the $7.25 per hour federal level to $8 in 2017 and $8.50 a year later. The vote split along party lines, with Democrats supporting the wage hike and Republicans opposing it.

The panel also voted 5-2 for a measure by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, that would extend an equal pay law governing state workers to cover private industry in a state with the largest pay gap in the nation. Republican Sen. Ronnie Johns, of Lake Charles, voted with Democrats for the bill.

Edwards made a plea for the bills in person, saying the proposals would help strengthen families in a state where one in five people live in poverty.

"We talk, as we should, very often about family values. But sometimes we talk family values and we don't pursue policies that actually value families," the Democratic governor said. "Investing in the success of Louisiana families is equivalent to investing in the state."

Both measures go next to the full Senate for consideration.

Similar proposals have failed to win support in the majority Republican Legislature in previous years, and the legislation is expected to face a tough road to passage this session. Edwards, in office since January, hopes having a governor involved could make the difference.

"This is not a partisan issue," Edwards said. "This is just an issue of right versus wrong, and today we're going to start getting on the right side of these issues."

Dawn Starns, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, spoke against both bills, saying the policy changes would create hardships for small businesses.

She said existing laws provide equal pay protections and Morrell's legislation could open companies up to unnecessary lawsuits. The minimum wage increase, Starns said, could force businesses to lay off workers because they can't afford the higher salary costs.

"They don't need the government to tell them how much to pay," she said. She added that the increased wage costs would follow recent tax hikes that lawmakers passed on businesses: "When government puts its finger in the economy, it has a ripple effect."

Currently, 29 states have minimum wages above the federal level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Peterson's bill wouldn't help student workers employed by the state or colleges. They are excluded from the wage hike. In addition, rules would be different for waiters and others who make the majority of their money from tips.
Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Bossier City, said salaries should be decided by economics.

"I don't support the bill because I believe in the market system that we have," he said.

Peacock voted against both the minimum wage and equal pay proposals.

Morrell's bill would require men and women who perform the same jobs to receive the same compensation. Exemptions are included for businesses that employ fewer than 20 workers. Suspected violations would follow a specific complaint process.

Women in Louisiana earn 65 cents on average for every dollar a man earns, compared to a national average of 79 cents, according to the governor's office.

"The message we are sending to our mothers, to our wives, to our daughters is that their work product is 35 percent less valuable than men, that their value as an employee is 35 percent less than their male counterparts," Morrell said. "That is a terrible message to send."

Online: Senate Bills 254 and 269: www.legis.la.gov
Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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