Equal Pay and Work-Family Policies Are Critical For Middle Class Economic Security

Within the first ten days of his new administration, President Obama took two major steps for working women and their families:  he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and created the Middle Class Task Force.   The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a harmful decision by the Supreme Court that had made it even difficult for women to bring pay discrimination cases.

Followers of this blog are familiar with the mission of the Middle Class Task Force, which is, as the Vice President has said, “to get the middle class – the backbone of this country – up and running again.” 

From day one, that charge has included addressing a defining change in the workforce and families – the movement of women out of the home and into paid employment. 

The American workforce looks very different than it did two decades ago – two-income families are the norm, older workers are staying in the workforce longer, and men and women are more evenly sharing family responsibilities.

All of this has been accelerated by this recession, in which male-dominated industries have been hit particularly hard. 

Women make up nearly half of all workers on US payrolls, and two-thirds of families with children are headed either by two working parents or by a single parent who works.

Yet--the workplace has, for the most part, not changed to reflect these realities.  Even with progress, some 50 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, women in the US still only earn $.77 for every $1.00 a man earns – with a bigger wage gap for women of color.   Roughly 40 percent of private sector employees don’t have paid sick leave.  All too often families must choose between keeping a job and caring for a family member. 

These issues are not just about basic fairness – and in the case of pay discrimination, justice – but also of basic economics.  The gender pay gap constrains our economy’s growth, by reducing the number of women in the work force and by preventing them from maximizing their potential in the most productive jobs.   As families depend more women’s wages, eliminating wage discrimination is also critical for middle class economic security -  families who are working hard can hardly afford to lose part of a paycheck to discrimination.

The Vice President put it well today when he said, “closing the gender pay gap, helping parents keep their jobs while balancing creative responsibilities and caregiving responsibilities, and increasing workplace flexibility are no longer women’s issues; they are now issues of the middle class economic security.”

So today the Middle Class Task Force is pleased to announce the concrete steps that this Administration is taking to help middle class families with balancing work and family – from the work the Council on Women and Girls is doing to promote flexible work arrangements to the steps the Equal Pay Task Force is taking to improve coordination on equal pay enforcement, collect better data, engage in a public education campaign, and make the federal government a model for others looking to close the pay gap.

But we cannot solve the problem without passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The Paycheck Fairness Act gives women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace. For example, the legislation allows employees to inquire about wages or share salary information without fear of reprisals. The Act closes loopholes that make it harder for women to challenge being paid different wages for the same work, and it ensures that women who prove their case are compensated fairly. 

The House has passed this legislation – and today the Vice President strongly encouraged the Senate to take action:

It is an issue that you’re going to have to look into the eyes of your granddaughters and you’re going to have to look into the eyes of the young women who you have hired, the young women who in fact are equally as qualified as any man you’ve ever hired and say, when it came time I didn’t step up….Get on the right side.  Get on the right side now.  Pass this act.

Terrell McSweeny is Domestic Policy Advisory to the Vice President

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