On Tuesday, President Obama will sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors, who employ close to one-quarter of the U.S. workforce, from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with each other. The President will also direct the Labor Department to adopt regulations that require federal contractors to provide compensation data based on sex and race to the Department of Labor. These important steps will strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws for women and ensure that some workers can talk about pay without fear of retaliation.

Punitive pay secrecy policies require employees to keep the amount they are paid secret and ban them from sharing this information with their coworkers. These policies are surprisingly common. A 2011 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that over 61 percent of the private-sector workers surveyed reported that discussing their wages is either prohibited or discouraged. These policies allow discriminatory practices to flourish. Fear of retaliation only exacerbates the many hurdles employees face in gathering information that would suggest they have experienced wage discrimination.

President Obama’s Executive Order is a decisive step against punitive pay secrecy policies, but the case against these policies has been growing for some time. Studies show it does not make business sense to penalize workers for talking about pay.

Many workers are fired every year, simply for talking about pay. Here are three women’s stories:

  • Tracy Jones was working as a temp at a company that packed furniture for shipping in Milwaukee. Like many women in physically demanding jobs, she was the only woman on her team. One day, she overheard her male co-workers, who were also temp workers, discussing their pay. She realized that they were making significantly more than she was—$1.12/hour more. When she decided to do something about it, her supervisor told her that she would be fired if she continued to discuss wage information with her co-workers. Undeterred, she filed a complaint against the company, and was fired.
  • Mary Catherine Craig, an aide at a nursing home, knew that her employer prohibited employees from discussing wages. But she did it anyway, because she knew her coworkers weren’t always being paid fairly and were sometimes denied overtime. As a result of these discussions with co-workers, she was fired.
  • Cheryl McNeely worked as a secretary in a manufacturing company. When she was hired, she was told that she was given a “starting salary,” of $435 per month ($5,220 per year). She quickly learned that all of the secretaries were paid at a similarly low rate, and she encouraged her co-workers to ask for a raise. About a week later, she was fired for discussing her wages.

It’s time for Congress to pick up where the President has left off and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. This is an opportunity to finally make clear that these retaliatory policies are illegal for all workers. Take action today to ensure that these punitive policies are a thing of the past—not just for those employed by federal contractors.

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