Narrowing Louisiana’s wage gap.

Zoe Sullivan Sep 7, 2012

Narrowing Louisiana’s wage gap.

Zoe Sullivan Sep 7, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Here’s one way to make people happy at work: Pay them more! Or at least, if they’re women, pay them the same as what the guys are making for the same work. That’s not happening in Louisiana, which has one of the worst records in the nation when it comes to pay disparity. But a new coastal restoration project, funded by penalty money from the BP oil spill, could provide lots of jobs with proper pay. It’s part of the RESTORE Act, passed in late June, channeling millions of dollars to businesses along the Gulf Coast.

Reporter Zoe Sullivan has this story from Louisiana.

Zoe Sullivan: Victoria Elfer is the picture of hard work and determination. She grew up and lives just outside of New Orleans, and is committed to making a good life there.

Victoria Elfer: The work that I do right now, I’m an office manager at a collision mechanic’s shop, and I also bartend part-time.

We meet at a car show where some of the vintage cars repaired in her shop are competing for honors.

Elfer: As an office manager, I earn, I think, a little less than $30,000 a year. And then bartending part-time, that just helps out with income because I have a mortgage, because I bought my first house last year when I was 22.

Elfer also supports her mother who has health issues.

Elfer: Um, and I have a son, so I have a three-year old.

On top of the two jobs, her mother, and her young son, Elfer is also putting herself through school. She’s fascinated by the snakes in Louisiana’s wetlands, and she wants to get a Ph.D to focus specifically on serpents.

Now that the RESTORE Act has passed, Elfer may just be in the right place at the right time, since millions of dollars will go into rebuilding the Mississippi River delta. The delta is currently losing land faster than any other place on earth, endangering cities and towns and all the local industry that depends on the wetlands.

But will women get hired for coastal restoration jobs, even if they do have the qualifications?

Beth Willinger: When I go through every single occupation, if I go through every single industry and I go through every single category of worker, women earn less than men, and that is across the board.

Beth Willinger is a sociologist who’s studied the pay disparity between men and women in Louisiana for years. Women in Louisiana earn less than men, even when they’re doing the same work.

Willinger: What we find is that in Louisiana, there are very traditional ideas about the work of women and the work of men. And so we see still a very sex-segregated labor force.

So how do you change the status quo? Policy reform is one way. This year, the Louisiana state legislature discussed two bills to mandate equal pay for equal work.

Karen Carter Peterson is a Democratic state senator from New Orleans. She introduced one of those bills. She doubts that the pay disparity between men and women will really change with coastal restoration jobs.

Karen Carter Peterson: Opportunity, yes. Do I have confidence in the state of Louisiana, at this point, will step up and do the right thing? I can’t say that I do right now.

Roughly a dozen women I reached out to for this story declined to be interviewed, in at least one case, because her employer asked her not to talk.

Margo Moss was an exception. Moss is 26 and her dark blonde hair is cut in a perky bob. She’s petite, but not a pushover. She works for an environmental engineering firm, which happens to be owned by a woman. Moss does field work in the wetlands, but she also helps her company bring in new business.

Margo Moss: Being a woman has its advantages and disadvantages. And I hate to say it, but, y’know, if you own some other large marine insurance company, and some 26-year-old girl walks up to you, you’re going to maybe pay attention to them more.

But Moss said being a young woman can be a challenge. When she first got out of college, she discovered what it’s like to work on one those big oil rigs miles out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Moss: Talk about being a woman. I was out on some rigs, that were, you get helicoptered out, an hour out. It’s like me and a hundred guys.

Sullivan: What was that like?

Moss: Oh, I got asked a lot “What ‘chou doin’ out here, little girl.”

Moss is still a minority among coastal restoration workers. But those RESTORE Act dollars mean a lot of money will be going to fix the Gulf coast. Those funds could employ more women like Moss and decrease Louisiana’s pay disparity, as long as those restoration jobs pay men and women equallyt.

In New Orleans, I’m Zoe Sullivan for Marketplace.

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