WASHINGTON (AP) — In a concerted election-year push to draw attention to women's wages, President Barack Obama signed directives Tuesday that would make it easier for workers of federal contractors to get information about workplace compensation. He seasoned his move with a sharp rebuke of Republicans whom he accused of "gumming up the works" on workplace fairness.
Obama made a clear partisan appeal to women as he issued an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay. He also directed the Labor Department to write rules requiring federal contractors to provide aggregate compensation data by race and gender.
"This is about Republicans seemingly opposing any efforts to even the playing field for working families," Obama said at a White House signing ceremony, surrounded by women advocates and accompanied by Lilly Ledbetter, a woman whose namesake legislation on pay equity was the first bill Obama signed into law in 2009.
Obama's executive order and directive to the Labor Department dovetailed with the start of Senate debate on broader legislation that would make it easier for workers to sue companies for paying women less because of their gender. That legislation is expected to fail, as it has in the past, due to Republican opposition.
White the president's actions affect only federal contractors, those directives can have a wide and direct impact. Federal contracting covers nearly one-quarter of the U.S. workforce and includes companies ranging from Boeing to small parts suppliers and service providers. Such actions also can be largely symbolic, designed to spur action in the broader economy.
The Senate legislation, like Obama's narrower executive order, would forbid companies from punishing workers who share salary information and would allow punitive and compensatory damages in lawsuits. It also would make it harder for companies to prove that disparities in pay are not gender based and would make it easier to file class action lawsuits.
Some Republican women were considering proposing a narrower bill as an alternative.
The National Labor Relations Board and some federal courts already have determined that company pay secrecy rules are prohibited under the National Labor Relations Act. But cases against violators can only be brought by the NLRB on the basis of a complaint. The Senate bill would spell out the prohibition and allow private lawsuits, which could be more financially penalizing than NLRB actions.
"Pay secrecy fosters discrimination, and we should not tolerate it, not in federal contracting or anywhere else," Obama said.
Obama's executive actions are part of his drive to act on his own when Congress stalls on his policy initiatives. The executive order and the presidential memorandum to the Labor Department are his latest directives on wages, pay disparities and hiring targeting the federal government's vast array of contractors and subcontractors.
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