Democrats in Congress will celebrate “Equal Pay Day” on Tuesday by reintroducing legislation to strengthen protections for women in the workplace, part of a nationwide effort to channel the energy of women mobilized to political action since the election of President Trump.
The effort comes as pay-equity advocates are concerned about legislative and executive efforts to roll back equal pay enforcement.
First daughter Ivanka Trump says she’s “very passionate” about wage equality and pledged during the presidential campaign that her father would fight for “equal pay for equal work.” Women working full time in the U.S. were typically paid 80% of what men were paid in 2015, and the pay gap was worse for women of color, according to a recent study.
President Trump’s own statements, however, have been less clear. He has said he supports pay based on performance, but he expressed concerns in 2015 about equal pay legislation if “everybody ends up making the same pay,” likening such a result to “a socialist society.”
An ad hoc coalition of business associations, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also urging the Trump administration to roll back an Obama-era initiative designed to reduce wage disparities by requiring big employers to report pay data based on race, gender and ethnicity. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing their request to prevent the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from collecting this data.
“It was pushed through under the prior administration because it met a political goal. But as far as the substance and merits, there just isn’t any that would justify it being kept on the books,” Chamber of Commerce vice president Randy Johnson said.
Women's groups are rallying around the country Tuesday to push back.
Equal Pay Day symbolizes the date when working women’s wages catch up to what men were paid the previous year. Given the energy behind recent women’s marches, pay-equity advocates expect strong participation in events in all 50 states, including rallies at state houses, lobbying visits and even bake sales, in which men are charged $1 for baked goods and women are charged 80 cents. Three hundred local businesses in 25 cities will participate in the #20PercentCounts campaign that offers 20% discounts or special offers on purchases.
They are also hoping to ramp up lobbying behind federal legislation to strengthen the Equal Pay Act, a 1963 law prohibiting wage disparity based on gender.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut will reintroduce for the 11th time on Tuesday, aims to strengthen an aggrieved worker’s position in court, prohibit retaliation against workers and improve federal enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.
“In the wake of the Women’s March, and the incredible energy we are seeing around political activism by women in particular, we expect this Equal Pay Day to be a big day,” said Emily Martin, with the National Women’s Law Center.
“What’s fascinating is the kind of activity we’re seeing around Equal Pay Day this year – not just the creativity of it but frankly the enormity of it,” said Lisa Maatz, with the American Association of University Women.
Part of the reason for the pay gap may be a concentration of women in lower paying jobs or women working fewer hours, but experts also point to discrimination and bias as contributing factors.
Equal pay legislation is gaining traction in state legislatures, with bills introduced in 40 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico this year. A common feature of these bills would prohibit employers from asking an applicant for their salary history before making a job offer.
Last year, six states passed equal pay legislation. But at the federal level, passing such legislation has been more of a challenge for lawmakers.
Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska has reintroduced equal pay legislation three times in the Senate to prevent punitive action against employees who seek or share wage information. She said it’s a pragmatic approach that has received support from Democratic men and could pass the Senate – if she could win any support from Democratic women.
“Why not take this step so that we can say to families, ‘Lookit, we can come together. We can take some action on this. This is going to provide you with the opportunity to gain that knowledge that will help you negotiate better with your employer,’ instead of constantly making speeches on the floor, one side against the other, on Equal Pay Day,” Fischer said in an interview.
That support isn’t likely to come soon. On Thursday, 85 organizations that support pay equity sent a letter to senators opposing Fischer’s legislation, saying its non-retaliation provision is so narrow that it only protects employees when they know and use “certain magic words” to discuss pay. Those groups are rallying behind the Paycheck Fairness Act instead.
“I want meaningful, substantive legislation,” said Maatz. “I don’t want window dressing. At the federal level, what we need is real change, not faux change.”