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By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans two executive actions this week to promote equal pay for women — and to promote equal pay as a critical issue for Democrats this election year.

One action, an executive order, will prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about how much money they make, according to an administration official familiar with the plans.

The other, a presidential memorandum, will require contractors to report data to the government showing the compensation they provide their employees by sex and race.

Advocates for pay equity say that a major challenge to enforcing equal pay laws is secrecy about what people are paid. Some employers maintain policies that punish workers who voluntarily share salary information with co-workers, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Tuesday’s actions will affect only businesses that do work for the federal government. The executive order doesn’t require workers to discuss pay or employers to make public their pay data, but the explicit ban on retaliation would provide what White House officials say will be an important tool to encourage transparency.

The new data collected under the presidential memorandum will allow more targeted enforcement “by focusing efforts where there are discrepancies,” said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the policies had not yet been announced.

The actions are scheduled for Tuesday, what activists call “Equal Pay Day” — the day on the year’s calendar that marks the approximate extra time the average American woman would need to earn as much as the average man did in the previous year. According to the federal government, women make an average of 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

Democrats are trying to make equal pay for women a major issue in the 2014 elections, as they look for ways to motivate a key voting bloc to get to the polls. Working women, particularly those who are single, have become among the most heavily Democratic of voting groups, and party strategists have been looking for ways to increase their enthusiasm for voting this fall.

Along the same lines, Senate Democrats plan to bring a bill to the floor this week that would require the Department of Labor to work with employers to do away with pay disparities between women and men.

Republicans say the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act wouldn’t create equal pay but simply place more regulatory burdens on employers.

“The ‘Paycheck Fairness Act’ doesn’t provide paycheck fairness for women,” said Kirsten Kukowski, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee. “In fact, it will cut flexibility in the workplace for working moms and end merit pay that rewards good work, the very things that are important to us.”

Obama also plans this week to appear with Lilly Ledbetter, whose suit over pay disparities became the center of a Supreme Court case and then the inspiration for a new law.

Ledbetter lost her case when the justices ruled that the law at the time required her to bring her claim within 180 days of when she was paid, even though she had no way of knowing at the time that her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., was paying her significantly less than her male colleagues. Congress then passed a measure to ease that time requirement, which became the first bill Obama signed into law as president.

Photo by Senator Mazie Hirono/Flickr

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