News & Politics

One Less Eye on Gender Inequality

The Bush administration guts another set of laws and policies that protect workplace equity for women.
For the last five years, the Bush administration has repeatedly undermined laws and policies that support workplace equality for women. The latest blow in this continual assault came when the Department of Labor announced that it would eliminate a critical anti-discrimination tool, the Equal Opportunity Survey, which is needed to ensure that companies receiving federal dollars provide equal employment opportunities to their workers.

The elimination of the survey is a big win for federal contractors that receive millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded government contracts every year but want to evade scrutiny of their pay practices. The Department of Labor's ideological decision to gut the survey is the latest in a list of administration actions that undermine the civil rights protections and family-friendly policies that are particularly important to women in the workforce.

The EO Survey was finalized in 2000 as a tool to detect and deter discrimination by federal contractors. Before the survey, the labor department was able to examine only 4 percent of contractors each year -- not much of an enforcement threat. The survey would have enabled better targeting of the labor department's enforcement efforts by requiring all 100,000 federal contractors to submit hard data on their employment practices such as hiring, promotions, terminations and pay.

But rather than using the survey to enhance compliance with civil rights laws, the Bush administration instead consistently focused its efforts on trying to discredit this important anti-discrimination tool. Far from being an isolated act, the decision to rescind the survey altogether is the culmination of the administration's long history of action to undermine its use.

Lest people think this only affects the employees at Halliburton or Boeing, it's a big loss for the more than one-fifth of the nation's workforce that is employed by companies that do business with the federal government. The administration's actions are particularly egregious because the most recent Census data confirm the intractability of the wage gap -- women continue to earn only 77 percent of men's wages. Instead of addressing that wage gap, the Administration has decided to hobble its own ability to enforce the laws mandating equal pay for women.

And this example of the Bush administration's efforts to weaken women's rights is not the only case. For example, the Administration has repeatedly sought to weaken the 86-year-old Women's Bureau, the only federal agency whose work is solely devoted to the concerns of women in the workplace. Early on in the Bush administration, the Department of Labor erased all information about eradicating the wage gap from the Women's Bureau website. Recently, it announced a plan to outsource half of the career positions at the Women's Bureau national office, which would cripple the Bureau's ability to advance working women's concerns. And in 2001, the Department of Labor tried but failed to close the 10 regional offices of the Women's Bureau.

The administration has also championed efforts to restrict the availability of overtime pay for workers, both by narrowing the categories of employees eligible for overtime, and by enabling employers to coerce their workers to take comp time rather overtime. This is especially harmful for women, because many women rely on overtime pay to supplement their inadequate wages.

Moreover, in an alarming example of selecting the fox to guard the henhouse, President Bush recently recess-appointed Paul DeCamp, an attorney who has spent his career trying to curtail legal remedies for women, to head the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. Among other things, DeCamp represented Wal-Mart in trying to prevent a class of 1.5 million women -- the largest employment class action ever certified -- from suing the company for sex discrimination in pay and promotions.

Besides taking away pay protections, the Department of Labor is threatening a substantial weakening of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Opponents of the FMLA are aggressively trying to limit the availability of FMLA leave, including by narrowing the definition of what constitutes a serious health condition and denying workers the right to use intermittent leave. These changes would deny leave to many women and force others to use up their leave more quickly than needed.

These actions, and now the decision to eliminate the Equal Opportunity Survey, demonstrate the administration's lack of commitment to equal opportunity. The administration should stop its continuing assault on working women. A good place to begin is by directing the Department of Labor to protect workers' rights.
Marcia Greenberger is co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
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