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By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama used his executive power and a hot-button issue to try to stoke support from a key election-year constituency on Tuesday, as he issued two directives aimed at ensuring federal contractors pay women as much as men for equal work.

Surrounding himself with female supporters at the White House, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about how much money they make. Advocates say secrecy about salaries is a major contributor to the gap in average pay between male and female workers in the United States, which the White House says leaves women making 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The president also ordered contractors to report data to the government showing the compensation they provide their employees by sex and race.

Democrats have long tried and failed to pass legislation imposing similar restrictions and rules on most employers, and they are picking up the effort again this week in a push tied to Equal Pay Day. The proposed Paycheck Fairness Act is expected to get its third vote in the Senate on Wednesday, although it is not expected to overcome Republican opposition.

Still, Democrats see the legislation as effective tool to rally women, particularly middle- and low-income working women, whose votes they’ll need to retain a majority in the Senate in November. Democrats typically win a majority of female voters in general elections, but are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2010 midterm “shellacking” that saw many of those voters either stay home or shift parties.

As he signed the executive actions Tuesday, Obama returned to the economic-fairness message he honed when he won over female voters in his own re-election two years ago.

“America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody, a place where anybody who’s willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead,” Obama said, as he mocked Republicans as trapped in another era.

“I don’t know why you would resist the idea that women should be paid the same as men, and then deny that that’s not always happening out there,” the president said. “If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they in fact do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me. They can start tomorrow. They can join us in this, the 21st century.”

Republicans noted that gender discrimination in the workplace is already illegal, and they argue that putting additional rules on employers will limit women’s choices in the workplace and burden employers. They turned to female lawmakers to make the case on Tuesday.

“Let’s focus on those policies that are actually going to move forward on a jobs plan that will create a higher paycheck, more opportunities and that opportunity for a better life, which we all want,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). “Two out of three small businesses right now are being started by women. … So women understand the direct impact of the policies and the impact that they have on them.”

Democrats’ eager cheering of Equal Pay Day was muffled by a larger debate over the size and root causes of the pay gap. Some economists and commentators take issue with the White House statistic, saying it exaggerates the gap by looking at women’s salaries in the aggregate and not accounting for differences in education level, hours worked or experience.

When the salaries for White House staff members are analyzed the same way, women on Obama’s staff make 88 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to a recent study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The analysis of 2013 payroll data found that the 228 female employees in the Obama White House are being paid a median annual salary of $65,000 this year, compared with a median annual salary of nearly $73,729 for the 231 male White House staffers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the numbers reflected the fact that more women than men hold lower-level positions in the White House. Women and men with equal duties at the White House make equal pay, he argued.

“But at every level, here at the White House, you’re paid the same for the work that you do, regardless of your gender,” Carney said, adding that Obama has several senior-level female advisers. Carney said the 88-cents figure is “not a hundred, but it is better than the national average.”

Republicans seized on the numbers as Democrats trying to enforce a double standard.

“Why is the White House judged by one standard and the rest of the country by another?” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski wrote in a memo to reporters. “There’s a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience. The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer — just as a female engineer would out-earn a male social worker. The difference isn’t because of their genders; it’s because of their jobs.”

(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)


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