Noelle Nolan-Rider was living and working in Biloxi in 2005. A florist for the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, the 29-year-old with a liberal arts degree thought she had found her calling.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit. Overnight, Nolan-Rider’s life was turned upside down and her career in Biloxi gone for the foreseeable future. When Biloxi began to rebuild, Nolan-Rider decided she would rebuild as well. Instead of returning to her career as a florist, she became a welder.
“I wanted a career where I could earn the same amount as a man,” she said. And she did, in the beginning.
A first-class welder, Nolan-Rider began working for Ingalls shipyard. Earning $26 an hour and working side by side with men, Nolan-Rider knew she made the same amount as her coworkers because they were all union and all ranked first-class welders. All first-class welders take the same test and are paid based on their class ranking, she said.
“If you’re a first-class welder, then you make first-class money,” she said. “It’s equal across the board.”
When the shipyard closed temporarily, Nolan-Rider found work welding in Louisiana. The job was a two-hour commute one way, non-union and “a big pay cut.”
“I really needed a job,” she said. “I had a mortgage, so I took it.”
She was hired, again as a first-class welder, making $21 an hour. A month later, her boss asked if she knew any welders who were looking for work. Nolan-Rider told several of her former coworkers about the job and two were hired as first-class welders. Both men were hired making $24 an hour, or about $120 more a week for a 40-hour work week. Nolan-Rider questioned her boss on the pay disparity. His answer was not what she was expecting.
“When I went and actually talked to management about it, he said, ‘Well, he’s got a wife and two kids.’”
Shaken and angry, Nolan-Rider said she was too stunned to respond.
She went and spoke with an attorney but was told there wasn’t much she could do.
“There were no repercussions whatsoever,” she said.
Like Mississippi, Louisiana is a right-to-work state, meaning not only can an employer fire an employee at any time but equal wages for equal work aren’t guaranteed.
President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, providing protection against pay discrimination, but Nolan-Rider said she still felt she was out of options. She immediately began looking for other work.
“I knew as a woman I probably would not make it in that company for very long,” she said.
Doing the math
On average, a woman in Mississippi makes $9,289 less annually than a man, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, meaning women in Mississippi earn 77 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man.
For African-American women in the state who hold full-time, year-round jobs, that number is even lower, with women earning 55 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns.
Sarah Fleisch Fink, director of workplace policy and senior council for the National Partnership for Women and Families, said Mississippi ranks 15th as the worst state for women regarding equal pay for equal work.
“The wage gap for women generally in Mississippi of 77 cents on the dollar is extremely problematic and it’s worse than the national wage gap,” she said.
And African-American women earning 55 cents for every dollar a man earns, Fink said, is “dismal.”
“Making half of a salary as somebody else is going to have a detrimental effect on the economic success for you and your family,” she said. “That’s half as much groceries, half as much rent, half as much gas for your car.”
According to the National Partnership for Women and families, if the wage gap were eliminated in Mississippi, on average, a working woman in Mississippi would have 77 more weeks of food for her family, nine more months of mortgage and utility payments or more than nine additional months of rent.
In Mississippi, more than 201,000 households have women as the sole or primary breadwinner, Fink said. Of those households, 39 percent, or 78,038 households, are living below the poverty level.
“If a woman is heading a household, if she is a sole or one of the main breadwinners in a family and she’s making 77 cents or 55 cents of what a man is making, that obviously impacts her ability to provide for her family and keep her family, and her kids, financially secure,” she said. “Clearly if there is a woman out there with children who can’t afford fewer number of weeks of food for her kid, that’s likely to have an impact on that child and that child’s ability to have a healthy home life.”
However, Darrin Webb, the state economist, said he hasn’t studied the economic impact the wage gap has on the state.
“It’s just not been an issue that’s come up for us,” Webb said. “No one has requested any kind of analysis like that and frankly, we don’t have the time unless one is requested.”
The domino effect
Felicia Brown-Williams, director of Public Policy, Planned Parenthood Southeast, and steering committee member of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, said her organization sees women each day who are affected by the wage gap.
“As a trusted health care provider, Planned Parenthood Southeast hears every day from working women who struggle to make ends meet,” said Brown-Williams. “It is unacceptable that in 2016 we still face such a huge wage gap in this country. Income inequality exists for all women, but in all 50 states, women of color are disproportionately affected by the lifetime wage gap. This is more than a statistic; it has dire life consequences for women and their families.”
Tiffany Graves, attorney and executive director of Mississippi Access to Justice, said 77 percent of their clients are women.
“These women are dealing with domestic violence, who are being evicted,” Graves said. “The kind of domino effect of these low wages is huge because you’re facing issues with your family and your life that are difficult to overcome.
“They’re coming to legal aid to get help with the issues that their income has put them in.“
Graves said, from her firsthand experiences with clients, the wage gap not only affects the women earning a paycheck, it affects their children as well.
“Our women are in low-wage jobs so the opportunity for them to even make more than they’re making is substantiated by the number of jobs in our state that they can actually get, that are available in the state,” Graves said. “That does very little to provide any level of economic security for women in our state and certainly our families.”
Graves said one of the issues lies in the fact that Mississippi has “generational poverty.”
She used an example of women who may work in hotels or the fast food industry, earning low wages, getting their daughter a job at the same company, who then gets her daughter a job in the same industry and so on.
“It’s that cycle of poverty that’s easy to perpetuate so long as women are not able to do any better financially and this is unfortunately what their daughters grow up seeing,” she said. “It ends up being where everybody stays in the same low-wage position because that’s all they see and all they will know.”
Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, said 62 percent of young children in Mississippi live in families that fall below 200 percent of poverty, the amount the National Center for Children in Poverty reports families need to meet basic needs.
Burnett said 66 percent of these children live in families headed by a single parent, virtually all of whom are single moms. She noted that the majority of minimum-wage workers in Mississippi are women.
“Single moms work,” Burnett said. “76 percent of the parents of low-income young children in Mississippi are employed. Unfortunately, their jobs fail to achieve family economic security. Low-wage jobs rarely provide paid family leave or health insurance. Women make up half Mississippi’s workforce, but 72 percent of the state’s minimum-wage workers, and minimum wage leaves a family of two below the poverty level.”
Graves said many of the women want to succeed but are held back by their financial restrictions. The idea of college may be impossible for some, she said, because while there are grants for schools, some women cannot afford to raise their children and take the time off work needed for class, and the cycle continues.
“With a small number of resources and often limited support network, these women in these situations are facing challenges that really keep them on the brink of financial ruin unfortunately,” she said.
Burnett said, in many cases, child care is more expensive that community college, making it nearly impossible for a single mom to work and go back to school to try and further her education. While federal funding is available, Burnett said it often doesn’t close the gap.
“Single moms need child care in order to work, but they can’t afford it,” she said. “Child care is expensive, costing more than community college. Mississippi relies upon the federal Child Care and Development Fund to help parents afford child care. CCDF can reduce a single mom’s child care costs by as much as 80 percent. But this program serves only about 15 percent of the children who qualify.
Burnett said women’s education levels in Mississippi are “on par” with men, but “education doesn’t eliminate gender disparities.”
“Women make less than men at every education level and in every profession,” she said. “These gender inequities leave women unable to earn enough to lift their families out of poverty.”
Changing public policy
In addition to low-paying jobs, Fink said not having access to paid maternity leave also negatively impacts women financially.
“If I’m a worker who just gave birth to a child and I go on maternity leave, I’m losing income while my male colleague doesn’t have to take time to recover from childbirth.”
Fink said public policy regarding the issue has to change.
“The ultimate goal is through awareness and education about the issue and through helping to develop policy changes that we can close the gender wage gap,” she said. “It seems both ambitious and completely possible.”
Amanda McMillan of Jackson filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after being repeatedly denied a position in sales because of her gender.
McMillan, who worked as a secretary with Dixie Tobacco and Candy Co., said she was denied promotions because she was told she “wouldn’t be a very good mother if I was out on the road making sales calls” and was paid less than her male coworkers for the same work.
McMillan sued the company for discrimination. She won.
McMillan spoke at the White House in 2013 as part of women’s equality month.
Today, McMillan said she is an advocate for change in the gender wage gap.
“This is not a myth, it’s math,” she said.
McMillan said if her daughter took the same test as a boy in her class and scored the same but received a different grade, people would be outraged.
“I don’t understand why it’s not the same in regard to money,” she said.
McMillan, who has two daughters, ages 10 and 20, said she has made it her mission in life to make sure her daughters don’t face the same discrimination she did.
“It’s what I want to be, an equal pay advocate for women,” she said. “I do not want my daughters to go through this same circumstance. How devastating it is to women in all states but especially in Mississippi.”
Graves said she feels women often feel forgotten by legislators.
“I think by and large you really do feel forgotten and overlooked,” she said. “Women in these situations don’t really feel like anybody cares about them.”
Nolan-Rider, who is back working with Ingalls, said she feels legislators need to speak with women and get their point of view.
“They need to talk to more women in the workforce and find out what they’re problems are,” she said. “Mississippi has a lot of problems. This is definitely one of them.”
While she said she, too, feels the laws need to change, Nolan-Rider said she’s doubtful the mindset of some people can change.
“As far as trying to change people like that, I really don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Brown-Williams said it’s time to move forward, not only as a state but as a country.
“The public overwhelmingly supports equal pay,” she said. “We cannot move ahead if half the population is left behind. Women — and this country — are ready to move forward. Anyone who argues differently is on the wrong side of history.”
By the Numbers
- On average, a woman in Mississippi makes $9,289 less annually than a man
- White women in Mississippi earn 77 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns; 79 cents nationally.
- African-American women earn 55 cents for every dollar a white, non-Hispanic man earns in Mississippi; it's 65 cents nationally for African-American women, 58 cents for Hispanic women.
If the wage gap were eliminated, on average, a working woman in Mississippi would have enough money for approximately:
- 83 more weeks of food for her family (1.6 years’ worth)
- More than nine more months of mortgage and utilities payments
- Nearly 15 more months of rent
- 3,049 additional gallons of gas
Source: National Partnership for Women and Families; Pew Research