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Obama plans executive order for labor inequities

Targets wage, gender issues in federal contracts

President Obama is seeking to demonstrate that he can still drive economic policy.

President Obama is seeking to demonstrate that he can still drive economic policy.

WASHINGTON — Lacking congressional support to raise wages or end gender pay disparities, President Obama is again imposing his policies on federal contractors, in keeping with presidents’ tradition of exerting their powers on a fraction of the economy they directly control.

Obama will sign an executive order Tuesday barring federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay with one another. The order is similar to language in a Senate bill aimed at closing a pay gap between men and women. That measure is scheduled for a vote this week, but is unlikely to pass.

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The president also will direct the Labor Department to adopt rules requiring federal contractors to provide compensation data based on sex and race.

He plans to sign the two executive orders during an event at the White House where he will be joined by Lilly Ledbetter, whose name appears on a pay discrimination law Obama signed in 2009.

On a separate labor front, the Senate is expected Monday to easily approve legislation restoring unemployment benefits to nearly 3 million people, sending the bill to a divided House where Republicans favor starkly different approaches to the issue.

Six Senate Republicans joined all 55 Democrats last week to end debate on legislation that retroactively restores benefits that were cut off Dec. 28 and extends them through June 1, clearing the way for passage Monday.

Seven House Republicans from high-unemployment regions or swing districts plan to send the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, a letter urging him to take up the Senate bill or a similar measure.

In taking action on labor issues without congressional approval, Obama is seeking to demonstrate that he can still drive economic policy. At the same time, his orders show the limits presidents face when they don’t have the support of Congress for their initiatives.

Republicans say Obama is pushing his executive powers too far and should do more to work with Congress. His new executive orders are sure to lead to criticism that he is placing an undue burden on companies and increasing their costs.

Federal contracting covers about one-quarter of the US workforce and includes companies ranging from Boeing to small parts suppliers and service providers. As a result, presidential directives can have a wide and direct impact. Such actions also can be largely symbolic, designed to spur action in the broader economy.

‘‘This really is about giving people access to more information both to help them make decisions at the policy level but also for individuals,’’ said Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She has been working with the administration to get compensation information about the nation’s workforce.

‘‘This is definitely an encouraging first step,’’ she said.

Federal contractors, however, worry that additional compensation data could be used to fuel wage-related lawsuits, said James Plunkett, director of labor policy at the US Chamber of Commerce.

What’s more, he said, such orders create a two-tiered system where rules apply to federal contractors but not to other employers. Those contractors, knowing that their business relies on the government, are less likely to put up a fight, he said.

‘‘Federal contractors ultimately know that they have to play nicely to a certain extent with the federal government,’’ he said.

In a separate action Monday, Obama intends to announce 24 schools that will share more than $100 million in grants to redesign themselves to better prepare high school students for college or for careers. The awards are part of an order Obama signed last year. Money for the program comes from fees that companies pay for visas to hire foreign workers for specialized jobs.

The moves represent a return to economic issues for the president after two weeks devoted almost exclusively to diplomacy and the final deadline for health insurance coverage. A trip to Asia in two weeks is sure to change the focus once again.

Still, Obama has declared this a year of action, whether Congress supports him or not.

In February, Obama signed an executive order increasing the hourly minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per to $10.10. While White House officials estimated such an increase would affect only a small percentage of federal contract workers, they said the move could encourage states or individual businesses to act on their own to increase workers’ wages.

Jeffrey Hirsch, a former lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, said presidential executive orders that affect federal contracting workforces can over time demonstrate that those practices are less onerous than initially imagined.

‘‘It’s an important step in implementing things in a broader scale,’’ said Hirsch, now a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

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