Elizabeth Warren has a plan to narrow the wage gap for women of color

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a community conversation at the East Las Vegas Community Center on July 2, 2019, in Las Vegas.

She joins Sen. Kamala Harris in making the problem a campaign issue.

Wage inequality in America falls especially hard on many women of color. While white women make 77 cents for every dollar a white man makes, black women make 61 cents, and Latina women make just 53. Now Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has released a plan aimed at closing those gaps.

The proposal, announced on Friday in an op-ed in Essence and fleshed out in a Medium post, includes a series of executive actions designed to hold companies that contract with the federal government accountable for how they pay women of color.

Warren pledges that if elected president, she will require federal contractors to disclose pay data broken down by race — and direct federal agencies not to do business with contractors that have a bad track record on pay for women of color. She would also bar federal contractors from using forced arbitration agreements, which are disproportionately harmful to women of color.

“For decades, the government has helped perpetuate the systemic discrimination that has denied women of color equal opportunities,” Warren wrote on Medium. “It’s time for the government to try to right those wrongs.”

Equal pay hasn’t necessarily gotten as much policy attention on the campaign trail as other issues affecting women, like reproductive health; at the first presidential debate last month, candidates gave unsatisfying answers to a question on how they’d close the pay gap. But Warren isn’t the only candidate to address the issue — California Sen. Kamala Harris, for instance, has proposed requiring companies to report pay data to the federal government, and pay a penalty if they don’t achieve wage equity.

Though Warren’s plan arguably isn’t as ambitious as Harris’s, the introduction of another major plan by a top-tier candidate is a sign that the wage gap could become a bigger issue leading into the second round of debates this month — and that candidates across the field will need to take it seriously as a racial as well as gender issue.

Warren’s plan focuses on closing the wage gap for women of color working for federal contractors

Warren released her pay equity proposal on Friday, ahead of an appearance at the Essence Festival, an annual gathering aimed at black women that will host five presidential candidates this year. Her plan includes the following executive actions, which she has pledged to take on the first day of her administration if she is elected:

  • Requiring federal contractors to report data on employees’ pay and role, broken down by race, gender, and age. Warren would direct federal agencies not to enter new contracts with companies that have bad track records on pay equity and diversity in management. Focusing on federal contractors would have wide-ranging impact because such companies employ about a quarter of the American workforce, Warren writes.
  • Banning forced arbitration agreements for federal contractors. These agreements, under which employees agree to settle any disputes with their employers in private arbitration rather than court, frequently harm workers, as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell has written. Employees are less likely to win in arbitration than in court, and when they do win, they get less money. Warren writes that forced arbitration clauses make it harder for employees to fight wage theft, which disproportionately impacts women of color because they are disproportionately likely to work low-wage jobs.
  • Banning federal contractors from asking about salary history or criminal history. Asking about potential employees’ previous salary disproportionately harms women and people of color, as Campbell has reported, because they are more likely to have been underpaid in previous jobs.
  • Diversifying the senior ranks of the federal workforce through increased recruitment and paid fellowships. As Warren notes, black women are overrepresented in federal government jobs, but underrepresented in leadership.
  • Strengthening anti-discrimination enforcement. Warren would direct the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to more aggressively monitor sectors of the economy that disproportionately employ women of color, like the low-wage service industry. She would also direct the EEOC to “issue first-of-its-kind guidance on enforcing claims involving the intersectional discrimination that women of color face from the interlocking biases of racism and sexism,” she writes.

Warren is not the only one to propose reforms tackling America’s wage gaps. In an arguably more sweeping plan released in May, Harris proposed legislation requiring companies to certify that they are paying men and women equally for equal work. If they can’t, they would be fined 1 percent of their profits for every 1 percent of the wage gap that persists among their employees, Vox’s Li Zhou reports.

Unlike Warren’s proposals, which could be accomplished by executive action, Harris’s would require Congress to act — a tall order if Republicans retain control of the Senate (Harris also says she would enact pay data reporting requirements for federal contractors by executive action). But if enacted, it could have a big impact, according to experts. A similar 2006 law in Denmark reduced the pay gap there by 7 percent, according to a 2018 study.

Equal pay hasn’t been a major campaign issue in 2020. That could be changing.

Equal pay hasn’t yet gotten the same amount of attention on the campaign trail as other issues affecting women of color, including abortion rights and maternal mortality. The candidates offered largely unsatisfying answers on pay inequality at the first presidential debate last month.

But it’s not a totally foreign subject to many of the candidates. Warren and Harris, along with Sens. Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders, and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and Eric Swalwell, are also co-sponsors of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require that all companies — not just federal contractors — report pay data broken out by gender and race, and would bar companies from asking about salary history.

The entry of another major proposal on the issue from one of the field’s stronger contenders, on the eve of the largest gathering of black women in the country, could drive more attention to the issue.

Meanwhile, it’s notable that Warren has framed the pay gap in her proposal not solely as a gender issue, as it has often been discussed in the past, but as one that affects people differently based on race and gender.

“Black women are more likely to be breadwinners for their families and work more than almost any other set of women workers in America, including white women. Yet, Black women are paid less and they are less likely to be able to afford basic human rights like healthcare, childcare and housing,” Warren writes in her Essence op-ed. “This is no accident. It’s the legacy of decades of systemic discrimination.”

Advocates and writers of color have been pointing out for years that the wage gap isn’t just about gender, and that wage inequality disproportionately affects black, Latinx, and Native Americans. But as candidates begin to focus more on issues facing female voters of color, they’re starting to get that message too.