Labor Department plans database to gauge discrimination by contractors

The Labor Department on Wednesday invited public comment on a proposal to create a new database of information on salaries, wages and benefits offered by federal contractors and subcontractors, with an eye toward curbing workplace discrimination.

The proposed rule, still in the early planning stage, is aimed at improving the capacity of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs to analyze indicators such as data revealing pay differentials for women and racial minorities. That office is charged with enforcing an executive order that bars companies doing business with the government from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion.

"Today, almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act became law, the wage gap has narrowed, but not nearly enough," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "The president and I are committed to ending pay discrimination once and for all."

The department reported that in 2010 women earned an average of 77 cents on the dollar paid to men. The database, OFCCP Director Patricia Shiu said in a news release, "will allow us to focus our enforcement resources where they are most needed. We can't truly solve this problem until we can see it, measure it and put dollar figures on it."

The notice offers the public 15 questions on what types of data should be gathered, how it should be used and what kind of burdens the database might impose on businesses. The public comment period extends to Oct. 11.

Contractor groups contacted by Government Executive are skeptical that such a tool can be fairly executed.

"We would oppose it as intrusive," said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica. "We don't support wage discrimination, but contractors are already required when submitting proposals and winning awards to certify that they're not conducting such activities. This presumes that compensation packages can be compared in an apples-to-apples way."

TechAmerica, Hodgkins noted, has members such as Google, which offers employees 24-hour gyms, coffee bars and "romper rooms." "How do you compare that with other more traditional employers' salary and benefits and work locations, and pretend you can assign them a value?" he asked.

The plan reminds Hodgkins of the Obama administration's High Road initiative, which was proposed in 2010 to allow agencies to favor labor-friendly firms when evaluating bid proposals. "Each company decides the best way to attract talented people that in combination produces the right skills in the room for the government and the taxpayer," he said. "Those differences drive competition," while this database approach "presumes a cookie-cutter pattern companies have to comply with."

The National Small Business Association also has concerns about the proposal. "NSBA certainly supports equity and fairness, but the new rule could prove burdensome for small businesses given the amount of information required and method for inputting such information," a spokeswoman said. "Of particular concern is the possibility that there would be an upfront requirement that bids include such compensation data -- before the business is even awarded any kind of contract. For a large business with a staff dedicated to federal contracting, this may not be a huge issue, but for a small business it could be a disincentive to entering the federal marketplace altogether."

Clarification: The National Small Business Association has not taken a firm stance on the policy but has concerns about it.

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