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Labor Department Takes Important Step On Pay Discrimination Claims

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Department of Labor announced it was lifting rules put in place by the Bush administration that made investigating pay discrimination claims nearly impossible.

On Tuesday the Labor Department rescinded two guidance documents, originally issued during the George W. Bush administration, that the agency says have impeded investigations of pay discrimination claims.

Investigators in the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) will now be better able to find and examine evidence in discrimination claims, and evaluate contractor compliance with Executive Order 11246, which requires federal contractors to comply with anti-discrimination obligations, including prohibitions against pay discrimination.

The Bush-era guidelines made it harder for the OFCCP to exercise its full legal authority because they required use of the same narrow formula to review all contractor pay practices, regardless of the industry, types of jobs, issues presented or available data. Now, OFCCP will be using its legal authority to hold contractors to the same legal standard that courts and other federal agencies already apply to these businesses to prohibit job discrimination.

The change is designed to give the agency more flexibility in uncovering discriminatory pay practices and is seen as a necessary step in getting to the more invidious practices that often lack direct evidence of a discriminatory intent. “A strong American middle class hinges on ensuring equal pay,” said acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris in a statement announcing the change. “As President Obama has made clear, everyone… must be paid fairly and without discrimination. These new standards will strengthen our ability to ensure that women and men are fully protected under our nation’s laws.”

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The news was welcomed by equal pay advocates like Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). “The Department’s announcement is welcome news for the millions of women who are victims of pay discrimination,” said DeLauro to The Hill. “These Bush-era ‘guidelines’ have hamstrung DOL and they never should have been implemented in the first place.”

Could the move signal more aggressive action to come from the administration on equal pay issues? Perhaps. Absent action from Congress on equal pay legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, forcing the issue through its federal contracts is one way to start eradicating the practice and build the case for Congressional action. At the very least it is certainly a step in that direction.

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