White House defends effort to close wage gap

The White House on Monday defended the president’s latest plan to use the power of his office to close the wage gap, couching economic equality as vital to the broader economy.

Obama is set to roll out a pair of executive actions designed to put female earners on even footing with their male counterparts. Beyond a civil rights issue, equal pay for women will aid the nation's economic recovery, the president and top administration officials argued.

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“Over her lifetime, the average American woman can expect to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to the earnings gap, a significant blow to both women and their families,” Obama said in a presidential proclamation issued late Monday.

“In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, we must use all of America's talent to its fullest potential.”

Obama will unveil the two measures on Tuesday, which marks “Equal Pay Day,” the name given to the point in the year at which an average woman’s pay catches up to what a man doing the same job made in the previous year.

The president will sign an executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their wages. The effort builds on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which seeks to end pay discrimination against women.

Double standards remain “if a woman doesn’t even know that she knows she’s being underpaid,” said White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, who noted that many companies have employment contracts that prohibit employees from disclosing pay.

“They must be able to ask someone else: ‘What are you making?’” added Betsey Stevenson, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Obama will also sign a Presidential Memorandum Tuesday directing Labor Secretary Tom Perez to draft new regulations requiring contractors to report summary pay information — including data on race and sex — to the agency.

The White House stressed that they would be collecting only aggregate data, not personal information about individuals. The regulations are meant to push employers – many who may be unaware of pay disparities among their own workers – to adhere to equal pay requirements already on the books.

“Looking at how you pay different people will hopefully facilitate voluntary compliance,” Stevenson.

Critics of the plan, however, warn that the data would be used to pile additional red tape on businesses.

“One could see how data collection could quickly morph into additional regulations,” said Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum.

The group argues that the wage gap is exaggerated as a means to justify government growth – to the detriment of the U.S. economy.

The White House countered that the economy depends on closing the pay gap.

This is isn’t (just) about women,” Stevenson said. “This is about national competitiveness.”