Mississippi is set to become the 50th state to enact an equal pay law with legislation that won final approval Wednesday.
The bill headed for the desk of Gov. Tate Reeves (R) would require companies to pay women the same as men doing the same job. It would apply to employees working at least 40 hours a week.
Rep. Angela Cockerham (I), the bill’s sponsor, praised her female colleagues for being “unrelenting in your pursuit” of equal pay for women in Mississippi.
Lawmakers strove to make the bill “as business friendly as possible,” Sen. Brice Wiggins (R) said on the Senate floor.
“It’s just creating a cause of action,” he said. “It’s just like if you have a slip and fall, or if something happens, that’s how you go about addressing things in what’s called the civil law.”
The measure (H.B. 770) drew criticism from some advocates for women’s rights who said it’s unlikely to change paychecks. The bill also may perpetuate the gap between male and female salaries, they said, because employers would still be allowed to pay men more based on seniority, merit, salary history, or gaps in their employment.
Over a dozen states ban employers from asking about salary history because it’s a discriminatory practice, said Andrea Johnson, director of state policy at the National Women’s Law Center.
“It’s really a devastating setback for women in Mississippi, and Black women especially—they experience some of the largest wage gaps in the state,” Johnson said.
The bill would punish women who have to leave the workforce to take care of children or other family members, Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, said in a phone interview.
“Enacting this kind of legislation will do harm to their households and negatively impact the economic security not only of them,” she said. “It’s not just a woman’s issue, it’s a family’s issue.”
It’s unclear whether Reeves will sign the bill. Welchlin said her organization will ask the governor to veto it.
The legislation would prohibit retaliation against any employee who files a claim of wage discrimination.
It also would require aggrieved workers to choose between filing a claim under the state law or under the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963.
Other states may prohibit collecting damages under both a state law and the federal law, but it’s common for employees to pursue wage bias claims under both, Johnson said.