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Obama Pushes to End Unequal Pay and Employer Retaliation against Women

work discrimination womenLast week President Obama announced a new set of initiatives aimed to strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women and other minorities in the workplace. He also signed a executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries with co-workers.

It is uncertain how many employees experience workplace retaliation as a result of discussing salaries, benefits and compensation. But a 2011 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research determined that nearly half of all workers claim to discuss salary information despite being prohibited by employers.  As White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett points out, “It’s very difficult for women to know they are being discriminated against if they can’t talk to one another about compensation.”

Obama also signed a presidential memorandum instructing Labor Secretary Tom Perez to develop and implement new regulations requiring federal contractors to provide summary data on employee pay to the Department of Labor (and here in Washington, the Department of Labor & Industries) including data about sex and race.

According to the White House, this data will be used to encourage voluntary compliance with equal pay laws, ultimately and ideally fostering more targeted enforcement by focusing attention where the discrepancies occur the most.

The White House has given increasing emphasis to women in recent years, starting with a multi-city push that will take Obama and other aides to multiple cities across the U.S. as they talk about how economic issues impact women.

Obama also engaged the issue through the Senate, which is scheduled to consider the Paycheck Fairness Act – a measure that intends to impose new regulations on how employers pay their workers. This is part of a larger effort to ensure that women are not unfairly earning less than their male counterparts.

With a GOP-led House, the odds are slim that the proposal will get through the Senate, since it would require companies to demonstrate that higher pay for men is due to factors independent of gender. It would also increase penalties for those who violate the act, broaden the opportunity for gender based class-action lawsuits and mandate that the Labor Department begin collecting data on gender and wages.

While the Paycheck Fair Act legislation is unlikely to get far in today’s divided political landscape, Democrats are banking on the fact that the issue will mobilize women voters–particularly racial minorities– whose turnout is essential to the party’s performance in the upcoming midterm elections.

Obama executive action came on a day activists have labeled “Equal Pay Day” — the calendar date marking the extra time an average American woman would need to work to bring in the same amount as her theoretical male counterpart in the previous year. Throughout the year, the White House has been consistently emphasizing government data showing that women earn 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.

On Monday of last week, Jarrett also pointed out that this gap is even larger among women of color, who earn on average 65 cents (black women) and 56 cents (Latino women) for every dollar earned by men.  “As the president continues to fight for equality, making sure that women have equal pay is very important part of that,” Jarrett said.

The action has already mobilized support and praise from key activists.  Deborah Vagins, ACLU senior legislative counsel and co-chair of the National Paycheck Fairness Coalition, released a statement calling the measure a “huge victory for the one in five American workers employed by federal contractors.”

Yet Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) tried to discredit the White House and Senate Democrats for their focus on this issue. “The president has been telling us for the last five years that he already made equal pay ‘a reality,’ and that he made sure that women are treated ‘the same,’ that the first bill he signed ‘ensures’ equal pay,” he stated in one e-mail. “So you have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this is an effort to distract from the consequences of Obamacare, the economy, lack of new ideas.”

The employment attorneys at Emery Reddy are committed advocates of workers employed in both small and large companies. If you have experienced illegal employment practices—discrimination, wrongful termination, a wage dispute, or some other issues involving FMLA or ADA—we will defend your rights and help you receive the maximum compensation allowed under Washington law.

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