By Phil Mattingly
President Barack Obama signed two executive actions today designed to shed light on the pay practices of federal contractors, which he said will help eliminate salary disparities between men and women.
“Our job’s not finished yet,” Obama said to a predominantly female audience in the East Room of the White House. “America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody.”
The first order prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against employees for discussing their pay. The president also directed the Labor Department to draft rules requiring contractors to provide the government with pay data by sex and race.
Today’s actions mark the latest effort by Obama to highlight differences with Republicans on issues affecting women, in part to rally support for Democrats in the 2014 mid-term elections. He used the event to criticize Republicans for blocking Democratic initiatives to raise worker pay and for budget proposals that he said recycle discredited fiscal ideas.
Obama urged the Senate to pass legislation pushed by Democratic lawmakers that would apply tougher standards to employers defending themselves against claims of sex discrimination on wages. Some Republicans have opposed the legislation, saying it would hurt economic growth.
“Everybody should pay attention” to how lawmakers vote on the measure, Obama said.
Carrie Lukas, managing director for the Independent Women’s Forum, which describes its goal as “increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty,” said the Senate measure would force employers “toward more rigid, one-size-fits-all compensation packages.”
She said in a statement that it benefits lawyers who file class action lawsuits more than female workers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor today that the Democrats’ initiative is part of “a never-ending political road show.”
Among those attending the White House event was Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire & Rubber (GT) Co. manager who sued the firm after discovering near the end of a 19-year career that she was being paid more than $13,000 less than three male colleagues. Her case was thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled she missed a deadline for filing the lawsuit.
“My bill was just an important first step in the fight for fair pay,” Ledbetter said in introducing the president.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides employees more time to file such lawsuits, was the first legislation Obama signed into law when he took office in 2009.
Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior adviser, said on a conference call yesterday that the equal pay issue is as much about economic growth as it is about fairness.
“For the United States to remain globally competitive, this issue must be addressed,” Jarrett said.
The Democrat-led Senate may also consider this month a measure to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, another item administration and Democratic officials say will help women. More than two-thirds of minimum wage workers are female, according to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.
While Obama has championed equal pay since taking office, he has come pressure from some women’s groups in the past to boost the role of women in the White House and in his cabinet. Women make up about 53 percent of the electorate and gave Obama a decisive majority of their votes.
The White House staff roughly reflects the nation’s gender balance, with women in about half of almost 500 jobs with salaries ranging from $41,000 a year for staff assistance to $172,200 for senior advisers and assistants to the president, a group that includes Jarrett and press secretaryJay Carney.
Of the 22 White House employees listed in a 2013 annual report to Congress as making the top salary, 10 are women. Of the 55 at the lowest end of the pay scale, 24 are women.
An analysis of the salary report done in February by University of Michigan economics professor Mark Perry for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington policy research organization, criticized the administration for its own gender gap when it comes to pay. It concluded the median salary for women in the White House was $65,000 and $73,729 for men.
Obama and his aides frequently cite a figure that women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, a statistic criticized by administration opponents as misleading because it doesn’t account for differences in education and occupation.
Asked yesterday about the AEI figures, Carney said women are well represented in the top ranks of the administration and that the median figure is better than the national average.
“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,” he said.