Obama talks about pay gap, but then punishes working mothers

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Article Highlights

  • Obama could handle the wage gap by repeating bad statistics, pushing irrelevant laws, and accusing Repubs of a war on women.

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  • The pay gap between men and women is not mostly about bosses discriminating against women, it seems.

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  • The pay gap is largely due to women wanting flexible hours, often to take care of children.

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  • In jobs where flexibility doesn’t come easy, women pay for that flexibility in terms of lower salary and slower promotion.

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If President Obama truly cares about fair compensation for women, he should stop penalizing mothers in the federal workforce every time it snows.

Allowing private employers to give working moms more flexible hours would help, too.

Alternatively, Obama could handle the wage gap by repeating bad statistics, pushing irrelevant laws, and accusing Republicans of a “war on women.”

The pay gap between men and women is not mostly about bosses discriminating against women, it seems.

The pay gap is largely due to women wanting flexible hours, often to take care of children. In jobs where flexibility doesn’t come easy, women pay for that flexibility in terms of lower salary and slower promotion.

Harvard economist Claudia Goldin concludes that flexibility is the dominant factor in the pay gap. “Quite simply,” Goldin writes in an article in the American Economic Review, “the gap exists because hours of work in many occupations are worth more when given at particular moments and when the hours are more continuous.”

Goldin argues: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.”

Obama should take notes.

New rules issued by Obama's Treasury Department force many department employees with kids to burn a vacation day or take unpaid leave whenever snow shuts down the district. For a childless worker, on the other hand, a snow day means a free day off.

The rules behind this cruel dynamic make some sense, but not if you care about helping women achieve pay equity.

The Office of Personnel Management instructed agencies in late 2012 to facilitate working from home -- “telework,” they call it. Treasury employees who wanted the right to work from home, the local library, or a coffee shop, had to be certified as “telework-ready.”

Treasury, in early 2013, told supervisors within the department that “all ‘telework-ready’ employees will now need to be prepared to telework or request annual leave in the event of a closure,” according to an internal Treasury memo.

All telework-ready employees are also required to have “alternative dependent care arrangements when primary centers are not available.”

Consider a mother who works at Treasury and who has become “telework ready” so she can work from home occasionally. Then it snows. Schools and the federal government close, and so do daycare centers. She now has to take a vacation day, unless she's used them all for a family vacation already. In that case, she takes unpaid leave and deals with a smaller paycheck at the end of the month.

The Treasury guidelines were strict here. Read the very first item in a Frequently Asked Questions document issued with the guidelines:

    Q. My telework-work ready employee reports that they are able to telework, but their children are home due to school closure. Should I grant excused absence (administrative leave) to this employee?

    A. No, inability to secure back up child/dependent care when primary centers/schools are closed is not a reason for the supervisor to grant administrative leave.

Don’t like these these rules? The guidance tells supervisors: “If you have an employee who is not willing to accept the new requirements … you should cancel the employee’s telework agreement and they will no longer be permitted to telework.”

Recall now how Goldin found workplace flexibility to be the best tool for reducing the pay gap. It’s fair to say Obama’s Treasury has little concern for closing that gap.

The Obama administration is even blocking some private employers from boosting flexibility.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a bill with his GOP colleague Kelly Ayotte to update labor rules on overtime. Under the McConnell-Ayotte proposal, private employers and employees could agree to compensate overtime with extra time off, instead of time-and-a-half pay: A mom could work 46 hours two weeks in a row, and instead of taking 12 hours of overtime pay (worth 18 regular hours), she could bank those 18 hours and take two days off.

President Obama threatened to veto the House version of this bill.

White House pollsters know that Obama benefits by talking about the pay gap. But if the president were serious about helping women, he’d stop getting in the way of flexible workplaces. And he’d stop punishing the federal government's working mothers.

Timothy P. Carney, a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner, can be contacted at [email protected] This column is reprinted with permission from washingtonexaminer.com.

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