U.S. President Barack Obama sits at his desk in the Oval Office Jan. 27, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC.
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How Obama could strike a blow to workplace discrimination

Updated

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama promised to make 2014 a “year of action.” Obama’s words offer reason for optimism, and he touched on a number of important civil liberties and civil rights issues in his address, including the economic security of families and pay equity for women.

Obama said he would continue to work with Congress, but, if necessary, take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families. That is exactly what he needs to do right now to help stop employment discrimination in the workforce.

The country needs to do away with workplace policies that belong in episodes of “Mad Men,” as Obama said last week. In Congress, passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and Paycheck Fairness Act would transform the national landscape regarding employment discrimination against LGBT and female workers.

Obama has been a leader on pay equity issues and an outspoken supporter of ENDA and the Paycheck Fairness Act. American workers are very much looking forward to the day when these commonsense and overdue measures are finally signed into law. By acting today, however, Obama could strike a blow against workplace discrimination, as well as provide momentum for further action in Congress.

One of Obama’s longest unmet promises is an LGBT nondiscrimination requirement for businesses that contract with the federal government. As a candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Obama told the Houston GLBT Political Caucus that, if elected, he would support such a requirement.  He’s now been in office for more than 1,800 days and they’re still waiting.

Issuing an executive order to protect those employed by federal contractors represents the single most important step that Obama can take on his own over the course of his entire second term in office to eradicate LGBT discrimination from America’s workplaces.

In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act _ a bill that updates and strengthens the Equal Pay Act of 1963 _ contains a provision that would ban retaliation against employees who disclose or inquire about their wages. While executive action would not go as far as the Paycheck Fairness Act, Obama could issue an executive order banning this type of retaliation for employees of federal contractors.

Research indicates that nearly half of all U.S. workers are either forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues. The pernicious impact of such policies is that they often prevent women from finding out if they are being paid less than their male co-workers, making it impossible for them to challenge discriminatory practices.

Both of these executive orders could provide immediate relief to the roughly 26 million people in America who work for federal contractors — roughly one in five workers in the labor force — by allowing them to work openly or discuss their salaries without fear of losing their jobs. 

No taxpayer funds should be used to subsidize workplace discrimination. This is not a new idea or one that usurps Congress’ critical role. For over 70 years, presidents of both parties have used executive orders to lay the groundwork for later legislation that expands civil rights and employment protections.

In 1941, President Roosevelt ordered federal agencies to condition defense contracts on an agreement not to discriminate based on race, creed, color or national origin. This was the first action taken by the government to promote equal opportunity in the workplace for all Americans, and the start of a longstanding, national commitment to barring private organizations from discriminating in hiring using federal funds exercised by subsequent presidents.

By exercising this well-established authority to issue an executive order that covers federal contractors, Obama would be leading the way for expanded protections for all workers when passage of ENDA and the Paycheck Fairness Act can be secured. In fact, members of Congress have urged the president to take such executive action as they continue to work on passage of both these critical bills.  

Obama has an opportunity to build upon this proud civil rights tradition. Now is the time to further cement his standing and legacy as a champion not only for pay equity for women and LGBT equality, but for all workers and American families.

Deborah J. Vagins is a Senior Legislative Counsel on civil rights issues in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office and co-chair of the national Paycheck Fairness Act coalition.

Ian Thompson is a Legislative Representative on LGBT issues in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office and co-chair of the national ENDA coalition.

Barack Obama and Executive Orders

How Obama could strike a blow to workplace discrimination

Updated