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Obama Is Poised To Sign Executive Order On Equal Pay And Contractors

Seeking to advance the cause of equal pay for women, President Obama plans to sign an executive order Tuesday barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries with each other.

Federal contractors would also be forced to give the Labor Department data about their employees' pay along with their race and gender, under new rules the president is instructing the agency to adopt.

The changes will be officially announced Tuesday. The National Women's Law Center applauded the president's plan, with the non-profit's Fatima Goss Graves saying Obama's actions would bolster enforcement of labor laws.

Workers' sharing details about how much they make is commonly prohibited or discouraged by employers. A 2011 survey by the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that "Almost half of all workers (48.4 percent) responded that they were either prohibited or strongly discouraged from discussing their earnings with colleagues."

"Gag rules that require employees to keep their pay secret perpetuate this inequity," she said Sunday. "These new rules will make it harder for employers to hide pay discrimination."

Last June brought the 50th anniversary of the federal Equal Pay Act; that led NPR's Yuki Noguchi to examine the wage gap, which she called "most prominent when a woman enters her childbearing years."

Yuki also noted that in 1963, President Kennedy had called the Equal Pay Act a "first step" that should be followed by tax breaks and funded daycare centers.

The AP sums up some of the circumstances around the White House moves:

"Lacking congressional backing to raise wages or end gender pay disparities, President Barack Obama is imposing his policies directly on federal contractors, following a long-established tradition of presidents exerting their powers on a fraction of the economy directly under their control."

There's also a political backstory, as Politico reports that the president's actions herald "Democrats' first large-scale coordinated message effort ahead of this year's midterms." The White House actions are expected to come as the Senate's Democratic leadership plans an upcoming vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act.

That legislation isn't expected to pass. A similar measure failed on a 52-47 vote in 2012, "after Democrats made a tightly coordinated media blitz to call for the bill's passage," as The Hill reported.

On Saturday, the Republican National Committee released a statement about what it calls the "misleadingly named" Paycheck Fairness Act, which the GOP says will "reduce flexibility in the workplace, and make it far easier to file frivolous lawsuits that line the pockets of trial lawyers."

Republicans are also accusing Democrats of seeking to change the subject, rather than talking about the Affordable Care Act and lingering questions over the new health care system.

In February, President Obama signed an executive order setting a new hourly minimum wage of $10.10, effective at the start of 2015. The White House has argued that raising the minimum wage "could close about 5 percent of the gender wage gap," as Huffington Post reported last month.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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