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April 08, 2014 9:43 AM Equal Pay Day

By Ed Kilgore

Since 1996, April 8 has been commemorated by the National Committee on Pay Equity as “Equal Pay Day,” an event aimed at dramatizing the continuing gap between incomes earned by women and men. The President will issue two executive orders today that are binding on companies competing for federal contracts, following up on a commitment to progress on pay equity he made by making the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act the first legislation he signed upon taking office. Here’s Paul Waldman’s succinct description of the orders:

The first order will bar contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation with each other. This was a factor in Ledbetter’s case — like many victims of pay discrimination, it took her years to discover she was being paid less than her male colleagues, because no one talked about it. And there are many employers who actually bar their employees from discussing their pay. The second order requires contractors to provide data to the government on employee compensation, broken down by sex and race. With those data in hand, the government will be able to see whether employees are being treated equally.

The transparency issue is key to making progress on pay equity. As Bryan Covert notes at TNR, where pay levels can be discussed, there’s less discrimination:

There are already some climates where workers have much more leeway in talking about pay, and it’s no coincidence that the wage gap is smaller there. Among federal workers, just 18 percent of women and 11 percent of men say they are discouraged from talking pay. The wage gap between those workers shrank to 11 percent in 2007 from 28 percent in 1988. Unionized workers also tend to have more access to information on the pay of their coworkers, and again among those workers, the wage gap has been declining and is smaller than elsewhere—unionized women make more than 90 percent of what their male counterparts make, a 2.6 percent improvement from 2012.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Senate Democrats are expected to mark Equal Pay Day with debate on Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to sue employers for sex discrimination in pay, and also bar bosses from firing workers for talking about their pay rates.

This is not an issue on which Republicans have much to say other than to claim existing protections are adequate, and of course, that doing anything more will be an excessive burden on small businesses. Congressional Democrats are likely very pleased that while they’re talking about equal pay, House Republicans will be debating the Ryan Budget and a House Study Committee alternative that cuts domestic spending far more. Nice contrast in priorities, eh?

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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