Why does South Carolina remain one of 4 states without equal-pay laws?

The South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C.
The South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C. The State

Seven years after President Barack Obama signed legislation that makes it easier for women to challenge discriminatory pay in court, South Carolina remains one of only four states in the country without equal pay protections.

Friday marked the seventh anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first law Obama signed after taking office. Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire employee from Alabama, gained national attention after she sued the company because she made less than her male counterparts for doing the same work.

“A fair amount of South Carolinians would be surprised to find out that their state has no equal pay laws – it’s not in great company,” said Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the nonprofit advocacy American Association of University Women. The other states are Alabama, Mississippi and Utah, although the latter introduced legislation this month.

$5.5 billion Combined total that women in South Carolina lose every year due to the wage gap, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families

Many Republicans argue that these equal pay laws result only in extra fees for trial lawyers and nuisance lawsuits while possibly hurting small businesses.

Women in South Carolina make 80 cents for every dollar that similarly employed men make, and the yearly wage gap between women and men with full-time jobs is $8,272, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

For women of color, the gap is even wider. African-American women make 57 cents for every dollar a white man makes in South Carolina, and Hispanic women 48 cents.

Equal-pay advocates say lack of awareness and transparency is keeping women from galvanizing around the issue.

“There’s a culture of secrecy about wages, and some employers have taken steps so that employees can specifically not talk about their pay, so when that information lies in the hands of employers it’s extremely difficult,” said Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president of program at the National Women’s Law Center.

The biggest challenge is getting people to recognize that the gender wage gap is still a problem in South Carolina, groups in the state say.

Many women tend to say we just say we wish our salaries were better, it’s hard to get good jobs to make a decent living, but the wage gap isn’t a real issue.

Carol Tempel, South Carolina American Association of University Women

“I don’t really hear about it unless I bring it up,” said South Carolina AAUW President Carol Tempel, adding that women often tell her they don’t see the wage gap as a real problem and prefer to organize around higher profile issues such as domestic violence and the minimum wage.

At the same time, when speaking with women across the state, Tempel said she often heard stories about seeing less qualified male colleagues getting promotions and better jobs and thinking, “I was waiting to be asked.”

“It’s not a characteristic of Southern women to be very assertive in this way, so I think that part is playing into it,” she said.

Women hold only 13.5 percent of seats in the South Carolina legislature, the third lowest representation in the country.

“We’re not getting to a lot of issues that matter to women because we’re not electing women to the state legislature,” Tempel said.

“I’ve lived in South Carolina for almost 40 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes, but also a lot of unawareness and lack of movement,” she said. “It’s not that some of us don’t try, because we try. It’s that the issues that matter for women aren’t being represented.”

To be sure, it isn’t only women pushing for change. South Carolina Democrats have introduced legislation, such as House Bill 3253 by Charleston Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, which has been stalled for over a year.

The bill would make it illegal for a state agency to “discriminate against an employee on the basis of gender” by paying a woman less than a man for the same work. The bill would still allow employees to be paid extra according to their level of education, seniority or job performance.

2094 The year that women in South Carolina will see equal pay if trends continue, according to calculations by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

“It’s a good step in the right direction, because quite frankly South Carolina needs to get with the program,” Maatz said. “This is not rocket science.”

The Obama administration on Friday proposed new rules that would require companies with more than 100 employees to send the federal government annual data on how much they play employees broken down by gender, race and ethnicity. This information would help public enforcement of equal pay laws and would cover 63 million employees, the White House said.

While pay equity has not come up much in the presidential primary races – Democratic candidates agree on the subject and Republicans gain no advantage in bringing it up – it is likely to become an issue in the general election.

“This is an issue that polls very highly with voters from all parties,” Maatz said.

A 2014 Winthrop University poll found that most South Carolinians – 3 out of 4 – are in favor of a state law requiring women to be paid the same as men for doing the same job, while allowing for different pay based on performance and seniority.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has touted equal pay in South Carolina stops since last year, pointing out her record compared with her Republican opponents. Women and African-American voters were crucial to then-Sen. Obama’s victory over Clinton in the 2008 S.C. primary, and she’s been highlighting equal pay as one of her main platforms.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen