Lawmakers in the House Are Trying to Defund an Obama-Era Equal Pay Initiative

Just one week before Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved a budget amendment defunding an Obama-era initiative to decrease wage disparities.

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

The initiative, which was announced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Obama administration, would have required firms with at least 100 employees to file pay data by gender and race starting March 2018. The measure passed last month prohibits the commission, which enforces anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, from using funds to collect data from employers.

Steps toward approving the amendment were pushed by business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who asked the government to rescind the initiative, citing data collection as an unjust burden for firms and questions on the confidentiality of the data. These groups also argue that the data collected would present a misleading image of workplace discrimination because the initiative does not distinguish discrepancies in pay for employees with different experience or backgrounds.

While these arguments attempt to undermine valuable patterns on wage discrimination that can be drawn from this data collection, they fail to take into account the very real existence of wage disparities between people of color and their white counterparts, regardless of experience—especially the discrimination that women of color face in the workforce. Researchers and women’s rights activists argue that the data collected by the killed initiative is important in implementing policies that will reduce wage disparities. Access to pay data would aid the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in identifying trends within industries and localities.

“This data is not an audit tool for individual companies,” said Ariane Hegewisch of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “But what the EEOC is planning to do is to compare similar companies to each other—to develop benchmarks. And having those benchmarks will help the EEOC to better target their enforcement efforts.”

Initiatives like the one the House defunded are crucial in addressing workplace discrimination, which especially hurts black and Hispanic women. According to a report released in June by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 60 percent of black women participate in the workforce, giving them one of the highest labor participation rates of women in the country. On top of having to balance caregiving responsibilities with work, over 80 percent of black mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families. Despite these higher participation rates and greater responsibilities, black women only earn 64.6 percent of what white men earn, and Hispanic women earn 53.8 percent.

July 31, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, marks the end of the extra seven months black women have to work in order to match the wages of their white male counterparts. As the House worked to fossilize existing wage disparities in favor of lightening the burden on employers who may be perpetuating discrimination in the workplace, black women and worker’s rights organizations united to call attention to the wage gap.

“At a time when equal pay for equal work is more than twice as popular as President Trump, you would think Congress would do everything it could to promote and support it,” Tracy Sturdivant, Co-founder and Executive Director of Make It Work, said in a statement, “not kill it.”

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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