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Commentary: Equal pay gets equal time in the national dialogue


If you are following the presidential race with even a passing interest, you have no doubt heard a great deal about wage stagnation and economic inequality.

Numerous causes and remedies have been offered ranging from a needed increase in the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, mandatory paid sick leave, “wage theft” protections and even scheduling reform for hourly workers. And, while there hasn’t been significant progress in Washington, D.C., on those issues, numerous states and localities have passed similar measures addressing wage and benefit issues.

Emerging, however, into the spotlight is the issue of equal pay. While equal pay has been getting more attention lately as a direct result of the campaign season, it has been on the radar of hourly employers and at the highest levels of government for quite a while. In fact, the Lilly Ledbetter fair Pay Act of 2009 was, quite intentionally, the very first bill signed into law by President Obama in his first ten days in office.

Over the next seven years, he has issued executive orders and executive memorandums to federal agencies expressly cracking down on any practice that may potentially involve pay discrimination, mandated paid sick leave for federal agencies and any contractors doing business with the federal government, and the list goes on. Whether or not you're a fan of the president, there is no denying that he has put his money where is mouth is on this issue.

New initiative

Fast forward to 2016, and the president has turned up the volume on the issue. He started off the year by highlighting the issue during his State of the Union address in January and immediately followed that with an announcement that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in partnership with the Department of Labor, published a proposal to annually collect summary pay data by gender, race, and ethnicity from businesses with 100 or more employees — covering more than 63 million employees.

These companies already submit a form called an EEO-1, which pulls workforce profiles from private sector employers by race, ethnicity, sex and job category and is publicly available. This proposal would add aggregate data on pay ranges and hours worked to the information already collected, beginning with the September 2017 report.

Challenges: Operationally, this will add a significant compliance challenge for larger employers when it comes to record keeping and data collection. Additionally, this new access to payroll records in the name of equal pay could bring unknown legal liability to companies as they defend themselves from potential pay disparity lawsuits.

The real exposure for some companies, however, may be in the reputational space with regard to elected officials, opinion leaders, consumers and ultimately employees. Quite often in the retail, service and hospitality sectors there is significant pay and benefit parity at the hourly level, but the further up the management ladder you go, the greater the disparity becomes.

Once again, just like minimum wage and healthcare, this proposal will ensure that this sector of the economy will have their business models on full public display and used as a political football for at least the duration of the campaign cycle.

Women voters, commanding half the electorate, are obviously a much sought-after voting block. And, equal pay is emerging as a 2016 political “wedge issue” that has the power to move female swing voters toward Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton has put significant focus on the issue and routinely mentions equal pay on the campaign stump as well as running an ongoing digital ad campaign specifically devoted to it.

Additionally, right in the heart of the campaign season, the White House will host a Summit on “The United States of Women” on May 23 together with the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the Aspen Institute, and Civic Nation. The summit will put a national spotlight on the issue timed, not coincidentally, as we head into the summer political conventions.

The question hourly employers must now ask themselves is, with equal pay primed for its close-up, will brands have their plans in order to offer a meaningful contribution to that national dialogue?

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. Align specializes in service sector industries.

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