By Lee A. Daniels
Could you use an additional $24,000 in your yearly wages? How about nearly $19,000? Or even just another $11,000 to $12,000?
Those figures are what you get – or rather, what women who work full-time don’t get because of the pervasive “wage gap” between women and men. Correcting that injustice is one reason President Obama last week issued an executive order and a presidential memorandum meant to ensure that contractors for the federal government follow equal-pay provisions.
True, election-year politics also played their part in the action: One purpose it served was to underscore the opposition of the Republicans in Congress to another proposed federal act – here, the Paycheck Fairness Act – aimed at advancing the rights of women.
That’s an important electoral “talking point” both parties are grappling with as the Democrats try to offset a widely-expected GOP surge in November that may win them control of the Senate and leave the president facing an implacably hostile Republican majority in both chambers of Congress his last two years in office.
President Obama won the women’s vote by 14 and 12 points, respectively, in 2008 and 2012, and there’s no reason to believe that either the GOP’s policy positions – on, for example, reproductive rights or social-safety-net issues – or the continual stream of sexist comments from GOP state and federal officials has changed the ratio of women’s voters’ preference.
That’s likely the reason GOP officials last week were careful to denigrate the president’s and the Democrat’s actions while fervently declaring their support for the idea of equal pay for equal work – without suggesting any proposals to aid its advance. Their mantra has been to declare the president’s orders will end up hurting women by limiting employers ability to offer job flexibility and merit raises and bonuses.
The president’s two orders bar federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay with one another, and order the Department of Labor to write new rules requiring federal contractors to give the government data on what they pay their workers broken down by race and gender.
Many private-sector employers forbid workers from discussing their salaries with other workers, and punish those who do. The discrepancies in wages that enables employers to promulgate was underscored by the Lilly Ledbetter case, which reached the Supreme Court shortly before Obama took office. Ledbetter, a 21-year mid-level manager for Goodyear Tire, had discovered shortly before she was to retire that her salary had always been significantly less than men who had the same job title and duties even though her years of service was equal to or greater than theirs. The Supreme Court ruled that she had discovered the discrepancy too late to bring a case against the company. Immediately upon Obama’s taking office, the Congressional Democrats, who then held both chambers of Congress, passed the Lilly Ledbetter Act to correct that injustice, and it became the first act the new president signed.
The Democrats’ Paycheck Fairness Act is going nowhere because it won’t pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But, given that federal contracting involves more than 20 percent of the U.S. workforce and includes Fortune 500 giants as well as small parts and services suppliers, the president’s orders can still have a wide impact.
There is, of course, another way of considering the wage-gap issue beyond playing the Washington political game. That is to consider the questions posed at this column’s beginning. Those figures come from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics setting the overall wage gap between men and women: that women working full-time earn just 77 cents for every dollar that men earn. Republicans claim the figure is so broad in the occupations it includes as to be “misleading.”
But there’s no doubt that an overall gap of at least 5 to 12 cents exists between women and men who do the same work. And there’s no doubt that the wage gap that Black and Latina women endure is far sharper than that of their White counterparts. So, given that mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families, and the primary or sole breadwinners for nearly 40 percent of American families, one would be justified in thinking that—in addition to the principle of fairness—eliminating the wage gap would provide a much-needed income boost to women whose wages sustain their families.
Rep Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, a sponsor of the bill, said, “This not about women, it is about ensuring families, who are more reliant than ever on women’s wages, are not being shortchanged.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.