Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes

2020 is the year to close the pay gap in Mississippi

On June 11, 2019, Mississippi gained a new distinction that sets us apart from the rest of the country. On that day, Alabama became the 49th state to adopt equal pay legislation when its governor signed into law an equal pay act that prohibits an employer from paying an employee less than another employee of a different race or sex for equal work. Mississippi then became the only state in the nation without any equal pay legislation on the books.

For the past several years, I, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, have pushed to eliminate this glaring omission to remedy what is a real problem for our state. We have had various bills to be introduced in both the House and the Senate by Republicans and Democrats. But gaining enough support to right this wrong for the women of our state has eluded us. It is my sincere hope that 2020 will be the year when we will collectively take a stand as lawmakers to remove one of the biggest barriers women are facing in our state. It is my desire that we pass legislation that seeks to wipe out the 27 percent pay gap that impacts our women at every income level. Annually, Mississippi women earn an average of $9,600 a year less than men in the state.
We have become far too complacent with statistics that show our state has the nation’s highest overall poverty. We have seemingly become immune to the reality that three-quarters of the children who are living in poverty in Mississippi are also living in a household headed by a woman. Women work four out of five low-wage jobs in this state. It should be a foregone conclusion that to break the grip of poverty in our state, we must start by helping to lift our women out of poverty by giving equal pay for equal work.

According to estimates from the National Partnership for Women and Families, the lost wages of working Mississippi women total nearly $4 billion a year in lost spending power. By closing the wage gap, women would have funds to buy 77 more weeks of groceries or pay nine months of utility bills or mortgage payments. Those are real dollars that would be flowing back into Mississippi’s economy. That’s something that would benefit the entire state. Don’t be fooled by the argument that education and experience can explain why women are trailing men in the salaries they are receiving for working the same jobs. Yes, we need better education and technical training across the board. But research shows that pay gaps are a reality even in higher-earning, white-collar jobs like attorneys and doctors. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, a woman with a bachelor’s degree working full-time, year-round earned on average $35,298 in 2015, compared with a man with the same level of education who earned $50,472.
One of the most troubling arguments against passing equal pay legislation has been that there is already 50-year-old federal law against wage discrimination. We know that the federal law was intended to be the beginning – and not the end – of addressing wage disparities. Thankfully, for the rest of the country, state leaders fully understand this to be the case.
It is beyond time for Mississippi’s leaders to join the rest of the country in standing up for women. Mississippi, let’s get serious about equal pay, our women, our economy and our state. It’s time to pass equal pay in Mississippi.
Sonya Williams-BarnesMS State Representative for House District 119