Mar 30, 2022 - Economy

Mississippi passes equal pay law with loopholes

Wage gap by state, ranked
Note: Rankings include Washington, D.C.; Data: National Women’s Law Center; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

The Mississippi state legislature passed an equal pay bill Wednesday — but the bill could actually make it harder for women to get paid equally.

Why it matters: Mississippi was the only state in the country without an equal pay law, or a law prohibiting employers from paying workers differently based on sex. But the Mississippi Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, which is headed for the governor's desk, explicitly allows for exceptions.

  • Employers can defend paying workers less by pointing to salary history, gaps in their work history or their negotiation tactics or lack of — factors that often reinforce women's lower pay.

The big picture: Indeed, 16 states forbid employers from even asking for an applicant's salary history because research has shown that it reinforces pay inequity even when women switch employers.

  • In addition, if a woman files a claim under this new law she would then be blocked from bringing a case under the stronger federal equal pay law.

Meanwhile: The bill makes no mention of race, something advocates fought for to protect Black women in the state from being paid less than their white female colleagues.

  • At least nine states specifically prohibit employers from paying workers less based on race, including Alabama, New Jersey and California.
  • The bill's author, state senator Angela Cockerham (I) said she modeled the legislation on the federal equal pay law, which does not include race.
  • "The bill is to uplift women," she said, adding that she didn't want to pit women against each other.

What they're saying: "This bill makes it harder and more difficult for a victim to access justice," said Cassandra Welchlin, president of the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable, which has been fighting to pass equal pay legislation for years. It leaves Black women out, she said.

  • "An outrageous sham," said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center, which has been fighting the legislation as written.

The other side: Proponents lauded the bill as a step forward. The state's attorney general, Lynn Fitch, told Axios in an emailed statement that she didn't agree with the critics.

  • It's a "giant leap forward in closing the twenty-seven percent pay gap — that makes it harder for working women and their families, that leads to young Mississippi women taking their talents beyond our borders, and that perpetuates the cycle of poverty in our State," she said.
  • Last year, Fitch defended the state's abortion ban at the Supreme Court, by pointing out that since Roe v. Wade, more laws have been passed that protect women's rights.
  • Laws prohibiting pregnancy discrimination and paid maternity leave guarantees make it easier to have a baby, she said in a statement at the time.
  • But neither Mississippi nor the U.S. guarantee paid maternity leave.

State of play: Women make up about half the workforce in Mississippi, Welchlin said. And about two-thirds of minimum wage workers — who earn $7.25 an hour — are women.

  • Women's annual wages in the state are the lowest in the country, at $33,140.
  • The state ranks near the bottom when it comes to the wage gap. Women earn 76 cents on the dollar compared to men. For Black women, it's 56 cents.

Welchlin's group is a coalition of Black women who wanted better pay. Initially they sought to raise the wage floor in Mississippi, but she said "we knew we couldn't get it passed."

  • They hoped a strong equal pay law would be a good second choice.

What's next: Advocates are worried now that other states might jump on board and weaken their own laws, using Mississippi's bill as a model, said Andrea Johnson, Director of State Policy at the National Women's Law Center.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to state that two-thirds of minimum wage workers in Mississippi are women (not that two-thirds of women workers in the state are earning minimum wage).

Go deeper