Obama’s actions on equal pay are good, but not enough


President Obama signs executive actions Tuesday aimed at closing a compensation gender gap that favors men. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Joe Davidson
Columnist April 8

The White House ceremony was all it was meant to be and less than it should have been.

President Obama presided over an East Room event Tuesday to honor Equal Pay Day by taking two actions designed to promote equal pay for equal work for federal contractor employees.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“Equal Pay Day means that a woman has to work about this far into 2014 to earn what a man earned in 2013,” he said. “Think about that. A woman has got to work about three more months in order to get what a man got because she’s paid less. That’s not fair. That’s like adding an extra six miles to a marathon.”

It’s not fair. It’s not right. Obama should use his power to correct injustices when he can. Federal contractors, who reach far into many segments of the economy, is a good place to start.

But he didn’t go far enough.

Women in the United States earn about 81 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

The executive order he signed says contractors can’t retaliate against employees for discussing their pay with coworkers. No one has to talk about their paychecks if they don’t want to, but if they do they might find out someone is getting paid less for the same work.

Obama also issued a presidential memorandum instructing the Labor Department to require contractors to submit summary information on employee compensation by race and sex. He blamed Republicans for “gumming up the works” by not passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which the Republican National Committee called “a desperate political ploy.”

The legislation would promote equal pay for equal work among all employers, much in the same way the president’s executive actions will do for federal contractors.

To the applause of a supportive crowd, Obama said he would not stand still in the face of Republican opposition.

“[I]n this year of action I’ve used my executive authority whenever I could to create opportunity for more Americans.”

Not quite.

Another executive order that could create greater opportunity for Americans seems to be languishing in the White House. This proposed executive action would prohibit federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Like the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) — which would ban companies from discriminationg again gays and lesbians — is stalled in Congress because of Republican opposition. The Senate approved it, but it is stuck in the House. In the face of that opposition, Obama could take action to ban discrimination by contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and identification, just as he did to combat pay discrimination against women.

Why he won’t is a mystery. Obama’s record on gay rights is very good and he has taken positions that certainly were more controversial in favor of those rights.

“It is puzzling as to why this executive order has not moved yet,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign that supports gay rights. He called Obama’s support of LGBT people “absolutely historic.” “This administration has done things that are far heavier lifts on behalf of the LGBT community in the past.”

Those things include supporting marriage equality for gays and lesbians, refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act that blocked federal recognition of gay marriages, promoting the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited openly gay people from serving in the military, and more than two dozen policy and regulatory decisions.

Last month, more than 200 members of Congress signed a letter urging Obama to issue the proposed order banning discrimination by contractors. “There is no reason you cannot immediately act by taking this important step,” they said.

So why hasn’t Obama done that?

When Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, was asked about the proposed executive order last Thursday, he had no answer.

“The President believes very strongly in employment non-discrimination,” Carney told a press briefing, as the White House again urged Congress to pass EDNA. But on an executive order that would prohibit discrimination by federal contractors: “I just don’t have any updates for you on the EO that you mention.”

Pressed on Tuesday for a deeper explanation, a White House spokesperson said the press office had no additional information.

When confronted Monday with American Enterprise Institute data indicating female employees in the White House earn 88 cents on average for every $1 paid to men, Carney suggested the differential could be due to more women in lower paid positions. The administration has “aggressively addressed this challenge,” he said. “And when it comes to the bottom line that women who do the same work as men have to be paid the same, there is no question that that is happening here at the White House at every level.”

What the administration is doing about equal pay for equal work for women throughout the government is another question. One that should have been answered months ago.

In May 2013, Obama directed the Office of Personnel Management to submit “a Government-wide strategy to address any gender pay gap in the Federal workforce.”

That report was due last November.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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