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Middle-Class Economic Security Begins with Paycheck Fairness

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Middle Class Task Force event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington, July 20, 2010. The event focused on equal pay for women and workplace flexibility.

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This week Vice President Joseph Biden and the Middle Class Task Force took a series of important steps to address some of the most fundamental challenges American families are facing—namely, the gender pay gap and worker flexibility.

Today, women are half of all workers and mothers bring home at least a quarter of family earnings in most homes. Because women are breadwinners closing the gender pay gap and increasing workplace flexibility are now basic issues for middle-class economic security. The fact that women earn just 77 cents for every male dollar means families across the country are feeling the effects of workplace discrimination—especially as the economy tries to recover from the Great Recession and so many families are relying on a woman’s wage because job losses were higher among men.

This is a dramatic shift from just a generation ago when women were much more likely to be stay-at-home caregivers. And that shift changes how American families go about their day-to-day business. Without someone at home full time no one may be available to pick up a sick child at school or help an ailing family member get to their doctor’s appointment. What makes the difference for most of us in being able to be there for our families is whether our workplace has adapted to this new reality.

Unfortunately, families everywhere now face the day-in, day-out challenges of workplaces that don’t reflect this reality. Families with and without children, those with older parents to care for or with disabled family members, and students and others all too often have to cope with inflexible workplaces. Yet when asked, Americans report that they want paid family and medical leave, more funding for child care, and scheduling flexibility that will let them be both good workers and responsible family members.

The Middle Class Task Force has put these issues at the top of the list of concerns facing families since its inception. This week’s event was yet another step toward building the momentum needed to reshape our institutions to address this new reality.

On Tuesday the Task Force released recommendations from the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force, which was set up to address equal pay in today’s economy:

  • Improve interagency coordination and enforcement efforts to maximize effectiveness of existing authorities
  • Collect data on the private workforce to better understand the scope of the pay gap and target enforcement efforts
  • Undertake a public education campaign to educate employers on their obligations and employees on their rights
  • Implement a strategy to improve the federal government’s role as a model employer
  • Work with Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

At the same time, the White House Council on Women and Girls announced that the White House has launched a Work-Flex Event Starter Kit to “continue the conversation” around workplace flexibility.

In March the Center for American Progress laid out an agenda for working families that recommended many of these steps. There are four key areas where we believe we need to make the most important changes:

  • Updating basic labor standards to account for the fact that most workers also have family responsibilities by instituting predictable and flexible workplace schedules, ensuring that workers have access to paid family and medical leave, and establishing the right to paid sick days for all workers
  • Improving basic fairness in our workplace by ending discrimination against all workers, including pregnant women and caregivers
  • Providing direct support to working families with child care and elder care needs
  • Improving our knowledge about family responsive workplace policies by collecting national data on work-life policies offered by employers and analyzing the effectiveness of existing state and local policies

As Vice President Biden said, “Closing the gender pay gap, helping parents keep their jobs while balancing family responsibilities, and increasing workplace flexibility—these are not only women’s issues, they are issues of middle class economic security.”

The White House has a unique capacity to lay the foundation for this agenda, and it is wonderful to see them use the bully pulpit to focus on the real issues facing America’s middle class. We need this message repeated in statehouses around the country and in Congress. Without new legislation we cannot confront these problems. Passing the Paycheck Fairness Act is a critical next step in this direction.

Heather Boushey is a Senior Economist at American Progress.

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