The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House orders look at pay equity inside government

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President Obama has called for creation of a government-wide strategy “to address any gender pay gap in the Federal workforce,” focusing on how salaries are set when employees are first hired and when they are promoted.

“While salary ranges in the Federal workforce are generally determined by law, the fixing of individual salaries and other types of compensation can be affected by the exercise of administrative discretion,” said a presidential memo issued Friday. “Such discretion must be exercised in a transparent manner, using fair criteria and adhering to merit system principles, which dictate that equal pay should be provided for work of equal value.”

Individual agencies are to describe to OPM within three months their procedures for setting starting salaries for new employees, especially policies “that may affect the salaries of individuals who are returning to the workplace after having taken extended time off from their careers (for example, those who served as full-time caregivers to children or other family members).”

Agencies also are to describe their practices for evaluating employees for promotion, “particularly individuals who work part-time schedules (for example, those who serve as caregivers to children or other family members).”

The salary rate for a federal job generally is set by how the job is classified within the government’s pay scales and is the same regardless of the employee’s gender. However, agencies have some leeway in setting starting salaries if a new employee has “superior qualifications” or if the agency has “special needs,” or if the employee was paid at a higher rate in a previous federal job.

An OPM memo carrying out the presidential order tells agencies that “The focus of our review, at this time, is on agency policies and practices on starting salaries and promotions for General Schedule employees and equivalent-level employees in other pay systems.”

That memo tells agencies to report on how they use pay-setting flexibilities and encourages them “to identify any policies or practices that may contribute to gender pay inequality.”

About 43 percent of federal employees are women, compared with about 46 percent in the overall workforce. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data show that on a percentage basis, women are overrepresented at lower levels and underrepresented at senior levels in the government.

The presidential memo follows one issued by lower-level officials two years ago that said that “clearly much work remains to be done in order to close the wage gap” and that promised “the most rigorous possible enforcement” of equal pay laws within the federal government.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office showed that the gender pay gap in the federal workforce has narrowed over time as men and women increasingly share similar characteristics in terms of the jobs they hold, their educational attainment and their working experience.

GAO said that the gap was 28 cents on the dollar in 1988, 19 cents in 1998 and 11 cents in 2007. It further said that all but 7 cents of the 2007 gap was explainable by men being concentrated in higher-paying occupations “and, to a lesser extent, other factors such as years of federal experience and level of education.”

GAO added that its study “neither confirms nor refutes the presence of discriminatory practices” on pay in the government.

“We’re glad to see the initiative that the president put forward, and we’re looking forward to seeing the results,” said Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative of Federally Employed Women. “When women are hired, are they hired at lower salaries? We’d love for someone to figure that out.”

“With promotions, it’s that same gray line — are women being held back, are they not moving up as fast? It’s tough to find out what exactly is the reason. Maybe this order will get down to the nitty-gritty, and we’ll get the details,” she said.

“It is all well and good that the President takes pay equity seriously, and so do we.  But President Obama needs to focus on pay adequacy for every federal employee,” J.David Cox, Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said in a statement.  “After three straight years of pay freezes, he needs to focus on raising pay for all federal workers.”