April 8, 2014 at 5:50 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Obama acts on equal pay, but not LGBT workplace rights
Citizens Metal, Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama took executive action on equal pay, but hasn’t yet done so on LGBT workplace discrimination. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama unveiled executive actions on Tuesday to reduce the gender pay gap in the workforce as he called on Congress to take further action — causing some LGBT rights supporters to scratch their heads over why he hasn’t taken similar steps to address discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Speaking on Equal Pay Day in the East Room of the White House, Obama talked about the need to ensure women receive equal pay for equal work. The president spoke onstage following an introduction from Lily Ledbetter, who became the face of pay inequity after she discovered she received less pay than her male counterparts as a supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Alabama.

“So in this year of action I’ve used my executive authority whenever I could to create opportunity for more Americans,” Obama said. “And today, I’m going to take action — executive action — to make it easier for working women to earn fair pay.”

One action Obama took aimed at creating more transparency was to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with each other. Additionally, Obama issued a presidential memorandum requiring federal contractors to provide data to the Labor Department about employee compensation.

Asked during the regular news briefing about GOP criticism that Obama took these actions out of political motivation ahead of the congressional mid-term elections, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama went forward with them “because Republicans are blocking passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act,” legislation to address the pay inequity issue.

“If they wanted to take politics out of it, they should do what the president asked them to do today and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act,” Carney said. “Instead, they are for reasons that I have yet to quite understand, but appreciate, have decided to engage in a debate about whether or not this is the right thing to do.”

But the same situation applies to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would bar employers from discriminating against LGBT workers that passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote last year, but remains stalled in the House. The discrepancy in action has prompted some LGBT advocates to renew their calls on Obama to sign the much sought executive order.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama should immediately follow up on his actions on equal pay with an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“President Obama will take a tremendous step today by signing executive orders reducing sex discrimination in federal contracting,” Griffin said. “Issuing these executive orders helps build momentum for Congress to act on paycheck fairness legislation.  The exact same logic applies to the executive order that would afford protections to the LGBT workers of federal contractors. By the stroke of his pen, the president can immediately protect over 16 million workers and pressure Congress to pass ENDA. There is simply no reason for President Obama to wait one second longer.”

It should be noted that Obama’s executive order on equal pay is actually an amendment to Executive Order 11246, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. LGBT advocates said this directive could serve as a model for an executive order on sexual orientation and gender identity, or simply be amended to include LGBT workers.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Obama has an opportunity during an upcoming speech in Texas on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to follow-up on actions for equal pay with an announcement on action against LGBT workplace discrimination.

“We applaud President Obama for signing this week’s executive orders combating sex discrimination in federal contracting,” Almeida said.  “In fact, the president’s new executive action amends and improves on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s still-functional executive order that has survived for decades through Republican and Democratic administrations.  It’s time for President Obama to keep his campaign promise to the LGBT community by including us in federal contractor workplace protections. His keynote speech on civil rights later this week at the LBJ Library would be a perfect venue to announce another tremendous step forward for LGBT Americans.”

In response to a question from American Urban Radio, Carney declined to preview Obama’s remarks in his upcoming speech in Texas, saying where the president “comes from and where his thinking is” on race is known and that should be reflected in his address.

The White House didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment on why Obama took action on equal pay with executive action, but not yet on LGBT workplace discrimination. Numerous times in response to similar inquiries, the White House has said it prefers a legislative approach to addressing LGBT discrimination in the workforce.

Also of note is that Obama issued the executive actions on Equal Pay Day, raising questions about whether Obama is waiting for a similar occasion for the LGBT community, such as Pride month in June, to take action against LGBT workplace discrimination by executive order.

Meanwhile, Obama made the case during his remarks that the equal pay problem is “not just an economic issue,” but about making sure that all Americans have a shot a success — an assertion that supporters of ENDA and an executive order for LGBT workers have been saying about LGBT workplace discrimination for some time.

“It’s also about whether we’re willing to build an economy that works for everybody, and whether we’re going to do our part to make sure that our daughters have the same chances to pursue their dreams as our sons, and whether or not we’re willing to restore to the heart of this country that basic idea — you can make it, no matter who you are, if you try,” Obama said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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