State laws that prevent local governments from making their own rules on issues like affordable housing and minimum wages are especially detrimental to women and people of color. That’s according to a new report from the Partnership for Working Families, a national coalition of advocacy groups.
The report uses Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Colorado as case studies on these so-called “preemption laws.”
In Louisiana, state law prevents cities from passing higher minimum wages and requiring a minimum number of work leave days. The report says that because women and people of color are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, they are disproportionately impacted by these policies.
“What’s real is that we know the folks that ultimately bear the brunt of this are women and, in particular, women of color,” said Ashley Shelton, the Executive Director for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, one of the organizations that helped put the report together.
Preemption laws can be used for a wide number of reasons, but as noted in a 2017 article in the Columbia Law Review, they’ve become a common tool of Republican-dominated state legislatures to reverse local laws in urban areas, often controlled by Democrats.
“While preemption laws are not limited to Republican legislatures, the contemporary political structure in many states reflects a clear partisan divide: Republican state legislators typically seek to limit the power of Democrat-run cities,” said the article.
Shelton said that preemption laws can exacerbate existing inequalities.
“Louisiana was one of the first states to put in laws that preempted the municipalities from being able to address issues of wage and paid leave,” she said. “And it’s not shock that we find ourselves with one of the largest pay gaps in the country.”
According to Shelton, as well as a report by The American Association of University Women, Louisiana has the largest gender pay gap in the country.
According to the Partnership for Working Families report, the pay gap is widest for black and Hispanic women, who are more likely to be the primary breadwinners in their families. Previous research cited in the report showed that in Louisiana, 82 percent of black mothers, 50 percent of Hispanic mothers and 46 percent of white mothers were the breadwinners in their households.
“Rising rents disproportionately impact people of color and female-headed households, who have lower incomes and less access to homeownership,” said the report from the Partnership for Working Families. “Similarly, preemption laws related to worker protections like minimum wage and paid sick leave harm the female employees and workers of color who are most likely to have low-wage jobs and lack paid leave.”
In 1997, the Louisiana State Legislature passed the law preventing cities from setting their own minimum wages. Five years later, New Orleans voters approved a local minimum wage of $6.15 — a $1 increase from the federal level at the time. Citing the 1997 law, the state Supreme Court ultimately struck down the higher minimum wage.
In 2012, that law was expanded to prevent cities from setting “a mandatory, minimum number of vacation or sick leave days, whether paid or unpaid, or a minimum wage rate which a private employer would be required to pay or grant employees.”
State preemption also came into play during last year’s legislative session. In 2018, a bill passed through the legislature that would have prevented cities from using inclusionary zoning policies to require more affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning is often used to force developers to offer some affordable housing in their newly constructed buildings.
Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed the bill, but at the same time, he put cities on notice.
“If local governments in Louisiana do not actively pursue these policies over the course of the next year, I will conclude that it is not their will to utilize these strategies and I will be inclined to sign a similar piece of legislation in the 2019 Regular Session,” he wrote in his veto letter.
This year, before the session began, New Orleans passed new inclusionary zoning rules, and although some advocates said they weren’t expansive enough, they did help stop another attempt at state preemption in the legislature.
This year, Shelton says her eyes are on a new piece of legislation: House Bill 422. The law would undo Louisiana’s ban on local minimum wages and mandatory leave days. The bill is backed by two New Orleans legislators: State Representative Royce Duplessis and State Senator Wesley Bishop.
“Local leaders are saying we want the access to the tools and power to best represent the people in our communities,” said Shelton. “So there is this growing local conversation that we’ve been excited about around the state.”
The bill is awaiting a hearing before the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. Edwards, meanwhile, is backing another minimum wage bill, Senate Bill 155, which would not repeal the preemption on cities passing minimum wage ordinances. Instead, it would amend the state constitution to set a minimum wage of $9 per hour, if approved in a statewide vote. That bill advanced through the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee and is set for a vote before the full Senate.
This story was produced in partnership with WWNO.