With little notice, President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that advocates say rolls back hard-fought victories for women in the workplace.
Tuesday’s “Equal Pay Day” — which highlights the wage disparity between men and women — is the perfect time to draw more attention to the president’s action, activists say.
On March 27, Trump revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order then-President Barack Obama put in place to ensure that companies with federal contracts comply with 14 labor and civil rights laws. The Fair Pay order was put in place after a 2010 Government Accountability Office investigation showed that companies with rampant violations were being awarded millions in federal contracts.
In an attempt to keep the worst violators from receiving taxpayer dollars, the Fair Pay order included two rules that impacted women workers: paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination claims.
Noreen Farrell, director of the anti-sex discrimination law firm Equal Rights Advocates, said Trump went “on the attack against workers and taxpayers.”
“We have an executive order that essentially forces women to pay to keep companies in business that discriminate against them, with their own tax dollars,” said Farrell. “It’s an outrage.”
Out of the 50 worst wage theft violators that GAO examined between 2005-2009, 60 percent had been awarded federal contracts after being penalized by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Similar violation rates were tracked through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Board.
But the research did not reveal much about sexual harassment or sexual assault claims. That’s because forced arbitration clauses — also sometimes called “cover-up clauses” by critics — are commonly used to keep sex discrimination claims out of the courts and off the public record.
“Arbitrations are private proceedings with secret filings and private attorneys, and they often help hide sexual harassment claims,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center. “It can silence victims. They may feel afraid of coming forward because they might think they are the only one, or fear retaliation.”
Mandatory arbitration clauses are increasingly used in employment contracts, said Raghu, who added that banning the process was an important step forward for victims of workplace harassment or assault.
Many learned about forced arbitration clauses for the first time just last year through the Fox News sexual harassment case. Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson dodged her own contract’s arbitration clause by directly suing former CEO Roger Ailes rather than the company. Ailes’ lawyers accused Carlson of breaching her contract, and pressed for the private arbitration to try to keep the story out of courts and the public record.
A new lawsuit filed Monday by Fox News commentator Julie Roginsky joined a growing list of accusations against Ailes, and claims Roginsky faced retaliation “because of plaintiff’s refusal to malign Gretchen Carlson and join ‘Team Roger’ when Carlson sued Ailes,” NPR reported.
By overturning the Fair Pay order, Trump made it possible for businesses with federal contracts to continue forcing sexual harassment cases like Carlson’s into secret proceedings — where the public, and other employees, may never find out about rampant sex discrimination claims at a company.
After the Fox News sexual harassment problem came to light, Carlson testified before Congress about forced arbitration — and Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dick Durbin and Al Franken wrote to major arbitration companies to ask for information on the amount of secret arbitration proceedings involving sexual harassment and discrimination.