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Mississippi is the only state in the nation without a law requiring equal pay for women—but that could be about to change. Ivette Feliciano sits down with Cassandra Welchlin, Executive Director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, to discuss her team’s push for equal-pay legislation, and the current status of Mississippi’s equal pay bill.
Last week in Mississippi, the state House passed the equal pay for equal work act, which would create legal recourse for employees paid less for the same work based on sex.
Mississippi is the last state in the nation without an equal pay provision in state law, after Alabama enacted one in 2019. The equal pay bill now heads to the Mississippi Senate, where a similar measure is also pending.
The momentum around enacting equal pay legislation is in part due to the work of the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable. For years the advocacy organization has called attention to the racial implications of Mississippi's gender wage gap, and has lobbied for an equal pay law at the state level.
Last month, before the new bills were introduced in the legislature, NewsHour weekend's Ivette Feliciano sat down with the executive director of the Mississippi Black Women's roundtable, Cassandra Welchlin.
Cassandra, who are your clients here at the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable, and why is the work you do so important for women in this state?
So the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable, we are actually an intergenerational network of Black women and girls working to increase the civic participation among Black women and girls, increasing voting rights among Black women and girls and advocating for just public policies that impact their lives. Our people are Black women and girls in the state of Mississippi.
Mississippi is the only state in the country without a law that requires equal pay for equal work by women and men. What does that mean for women of color in Mississippi, specifically Black women in the state?
What that means is women are losing wages at higher levels because they are Black and because they are a woman. When women can't earn a living wage and take care of their families, right? It impacts every area of their life. And when we talk about Black women, Black women make $0.56 on the dollar compared to a white non-Hispanic man, and she's losing over the course of a year over $21,000. Over the course of a 40-year career, she loses over $849,000. So what that means is that she doesn't have enough money to save up for retirement. She doesn't have resources for health care, for putting her children through college. And so she's never able to recover those lost wages. We have been working for the last, I'd say, six years to get an equal pay law passed in the state of Mississippi. So women in the state are half the workforce, two-thirds of the minimum wage earners. And when we talk about who are the breadwinners and co-breadwinners of their families, they are women. And eight out of 10 Black women are breadwinners of their families. Women in this state. Black, white, Latina, indigenous women are the backbone, the economic drivers here in the state of Mississippi. But yet we're not making the wages that we need to, and Black and brown women are really at the center of that.
Why have efforts to pass an equal pay law fallen short in the state of Mississippi?
There really isn't an excuse at all on why we shouldn't have an equal pay law. But what we have heard is that it's going to hurt small businesses or it's going to hurt business businesses as a whole. We want employers to be a partner with us in this. The state of Mississippi always says that we are a business friendly state. We need to then treat our employees who are the women in this state like they are valued. We've heard there's a federal law. What we know is that that federal law does not protect women at the state level the way it should, because it creates a lot of loopholes.
The two federal laws, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009? What are the loopholes?
There's no consistency, you know, across the board. And so every state can interpret it right, differently. When the judges interpret the laws in a way that prevents women from recovering the damages, it has in some ways put the burden on employees to prove, you know, there there's wage discrimination. It's just problematic, you know, all the way around.
What are your hopes for this next legislative session?
We want a good equal pay law. We have built a bipartisan coalition on this issue because we understand that it is good for Mississippi's economy. If we had an equal pay law, it would put $4.15 billion back into the state's economy. That is huge.
We also think this gives us an opportunity to not just talk about equal pay, but to talk about women's economic security. Our initiative, the Mississippi Women's Economic Security introduces pay, leave, sick leave, increasing wages, child care, it's putting an agenda, a woman's agenda before the Legislature. And so this is just one way. Our labor has built, you know, it's built this country. It is past time that our labor is honored and is valued. And we're not going away, and we're bringing these women to the table with us.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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