THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF LABOR ROBERT REICH AND THE DIRECTOR OF THE WOMEN'S BUREAU AT THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR KAREN NUSSBAUM
The Briefing Room
2:51 P.M. EDT
SECRETARY REICH: Thank you, Mike. Let me just say a couple of words of context and then turn it over to Karen, and also answer any questions you have.
Working women in this country, in general, have seen some improvements over the last 10 to 15 years in their wages. But they're still substantially trailing working men. Many of you tracked the report of the Glass Ceiling Commission, which came out recently, showing that in executive suites for example, vice president and above, 95 to 97 percent of the people there are white males. There simply are not women.
Working women told us in this survey that one of their great frustrations is simply not being able to get ahead because they're not promoted, because they're not trained, because they don't have same opportunities that men have. This is part of the larger agenda that we've embarked on to lift wages, working conditions, benefits of Americans.
Some of you have heard me talk, perhaps ad-nausea -- maybe you don't want to hear me talk anymore about this, but let me just say a word. Median wages for most people, non-supervisory workers -- that covers about 80 percent of the work force, men and women -- median wages continue to stagnate or decline. It's been a 15-17 year problem. The people at the top -- the top 20 percent, took home about half of family income last year. They have generally -- they have college educations. The trajectory they're on, that upward trajectory, is not as quick or as steep as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but 80 percent of Americans, working Americans underneath them, are having a hard time making ends meet.
Now, our first challenge, as you know, was to get jobs -- get the great American jobs machine humming again -- and we've done that. In fact, you know that we have the best job growth, noninflationary job growth in 25 years. But we are now turning our attention to the more fundamental and bigger challenge -- that 15- to 20-year challenge, lifting wages, lifting benefits for working people in America. The efforts announced today, the recommendations based upon a survey of 250,000 women, working women, the largest survey ever undertaken, are designed to lift the prospects of working women. That's not to say that we are disregarding working men; we're doing a lot for working men as well.
Minimum wage -- now at $4.25 an hour, aiming for a 40- year low -- there is absolutely no reason why we should tolerate that in this society. Nobody can make a living on $8,500 a year. Two- thirds -- almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, providing on average, half of family earnings. We've got to do better.
There are many other recommendations Karen will talk about with more specificity. Some of them are already embodied in legislative proposals, some of them are being accomplished, and will be accomplished administratively.
MS. NUSSBAUM: Let me just say briefly, the recommendations follow the three key areas women talked to us about -- pay and benefits, work and family, and the value of women's work. They're a combination of legislative, administrative and voluntary initiatives, a number of which we're prepared to begin to implement right away. Maybe we could just leave it at that.
Q Mr. Secretary, why does the President, with all this proof so blatant, why does the President have to review affirmative action?
SECRETARY REICH: The President is reviewing affirmative action, because affirmative action is under assault by many Republicans who are questioning whether it should be undertaken at all.
Q If it's under assault why doesn't he defend it?
SECRETARY REICH: We want to make absolutely sure that it is doing what affirmative action is intended to accomplish. There will be no retreat from the goals of affirmative action. But this review is intended to make absolutely sure that it is working all aspects, all laws and regulations are working as they were intended to work, to make sure that the net is cast wider, to make sure that employers, most of whom these days, as they have been in the past, are white and male, are making every effort not simply to replicate themselves, but to look for qualified people who happen not to be white or male.
Q You know this is being interpreted as a retreat.
SECRETARY REICH: Well, I can't help how it's being interpreted.
Q Are any of the programs or the recommendations on this that were presented today -- could any of those be classified as affirmative action programs?
MS. NUSSBAUM: Well, there are programs that talk about the value of women's work and equal opportunity. One of the examples is the streamlining contract compliance for federal contractors, where we will do two things: one is make it much easier to fill out the forms, greatly streamline what's required of employers to provide the federal government as contractors, but also for the first time, collect data on pay so that we can understand whether there are wage discrepancies and get to the heart of the problem.
Q Is it appropriate to be proposing a new affirmative action type program at a time when the White House is conducting a review of affirmative action programs?
MS. NUSSBAUM: This is completely consistent with the goals of both streamlining government and targeting what the real nature of the problem is. It's a regulatory -- proposed regulatory reform, and it will go out in the way that the White House has requested, that with public review first. And that will begin in the next couple of months.
Q Why is this an affirmative action program?
MS. NUSSBAUM: It refers to streamlining requirements and beginning to collect pay data from the Executive Order 11246.
Q Right, but you're not offering any special grants for women or -- I don't understand why this is an affirmative action. This is just collecting data.
MS. NUSSBAUM: It refers to the data that's collected by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces affirmative action among federal contractors.
SECRETARY REICH: This is not a new affirmative action program.
MS. NUSSBAUM: It's not a new program.
SECRETARY REICH: Let's make sure we all understand that. This is a simplification of a form, a data collection form --a radical simplification. In fact, it's now down to two pages -- a two-page summary for federal contractors only. And pay data will be collected on that.
Q Is there anything you're proposing to do that won't help men and women equally? Are there things just targeted to women?
MS. NUSSBAUM: Well, we believe one of the important things about the initiatives here is that they benefit -- as they solve problems that women have enunciated, they also solve problems for men, so that there are programs, for example, the Pension Education Campaign, which will be directed towards women and men; programs to promote child care and elder care which affect all working families. But they are primarily issues that are associated with working women and women entering the work force.
SECRETARY REICH: If I could just add to that. Child care, pension education, minimum wage -- these are issues that affect men just as they affect women. It so happens, given the structure of our economy and the structure the jobs market, there are more women who have to cope with the minimum wage, with child care, with not having adequate pension funds. But there are plenty of men, as well.
Q Secretary Reich, you're emphasizing here a minimum wage program to benefit working women rather than some other programs that you might undertake. This is sort of a color blind kind of program -- the kind of things the President has outlined would be part of his affirmative action result. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of these kind of class-based programs, rather than gender-based or racial-based programs?
SECRETARY REICH: I'm not sure I understand the parameters of your questions, but let me just speak to what I think I understand. It is vitally important that we lift the wages of all Americans. For more than 15 years, median wages have been stuck. In fact, non-supervisory wages have been stagnant or declining. Americans have used several coping mechanisms to deal with declining family incomes. The first coping mechanism in the 1970s was women came into the work force to prop up family incomes which otherwise were under great stress. I wish I could say that women had entered the work force in droves beginning in the '70s because there were marvelous opportunities for women out there. That is not the primarily reason why women entered the work force. It was to prop up declining family incomes.
The second coping mechanism was working longer hours. And we have seen in many families there are now not only two jobs, but three jobs, split among two workers.
The third coping mechanism was having smaller families. You see that, actually, family size began to shrink in the 1980s, not because people loved children less, but because they could not afford; not that this was a conscious decision, but that this again, was one of the coping mechanisms Americans have used.
And the fourth and final coping mechanism was to dip into savings. We saw by the late 1980s record levels of indebtedness. Americans are working harder than ever before. There's a great deal of disillusionment and anger, even though we brought back a huge number of jobs -- 6.3 million jobs added to the American economy. It's no longer a jobless recovery, it is a vigorous jobs recovery without inflation -- again, one of the best economic performances anybody could want, but there is still this underlying issue, gathering over 15 to 20 years of the stagnating or declining incomes. We've got to lift incomes.
Minimum wage, but also education, job training, college loans, making it easy for people to get the tools they need to succeed in this new economy -- technologically-based economy, globally-based economy. There's good factory jobs that used to be there 20 or 30 years ago for relatively unskilled people are simply disappearing.
Q This is for Ms. Nussbaum. What is the National League of Cities specifically expected to do about child care in the partnership? How are cities going to pay for this? I mean, are they voluntarily agreeing to take on a kind of unfunded federal mandate?
MS. NUSSBAUM: No, we're just developing those specific plans with the National League of Cities right now, but what we hope to do is to look at what are the obstacles in city planning that stand in the way of providing more child care, making child care available, the kinds of problems like zoning ordinances, liability issues and so on. So we will work with city planners at the city level to see whether we can help make child care and other dependent care services more available and more affordable.
Q When you list pay equity among your goals, that's had different definitions at different stages of history. What do you mean by pay equity, and how do you propose to get there?
MS. NUSSBAUM: We're going to provide information to employers, employees and other organizations on models of fair pay systems, and those will include pay equity. And by pay equity, I mean, what's commonly understood to be equal pay for work of comparable value.
This is an idea that's been taken up in 45 states, which have done anything from establishing task forces to evaluate their pay systems, to awarding back pay awards and increased future earnings to people in women-dominated jobs. One good example is the State of Connecticut, which recently awarded, on average, $1,000 a year to half of the state work force to upgrade the wages of people in female-dominated jobs. Thirty percent of those pay increases went to white males who were in those jobs.
So we will be providing that information in the hopes that we will stimulate a genuine interest in trying to establish fair pay systems on a voluntary basis.
Q Like, in other words, my understanding is that most of this has been in the public sector so far. You want to expand that to encourage the private sector to take up the same kind of --
MS. NUSSBAUM: Yes.
SECRETARY REICH: There's been a great deal of confusion in the private sector as to methodologies for measuring equal efforts, equal skill, even though they are different kinds of jobs -- one set of jobs dominated by men, another dominated by women --this effort would provide information to the private sector, and there are a lot of employers, a lot of industries that really would like to have the technical assistance. They want to overcome that pay inequity.
Q Well, what is the current ratio? It used to be these .59 buttons that women's groups used to give out. What is the current ratio of women's pay to men's pay?
MS. NUSSBAUM: It's .71. It's up from .61 15 years ago. The decline in the wage gap is attributed to a number of factors. One is the number of women who have -- there is a group of women who have gone into higher paying jobs, although most women, their wages have remained stagnant. But it's also attributable in part to the fact that wages for blue-collar men have gone down. So it's a combination of those factors.
Some people refer to it as the "dime revolution." It's not quite gone as far as it needs to.
SECRETARY REICH: If I could mention just one other very important issue, and that is pension information. One thing we heard from women all over the country, and I've heard it anecdotally from women workers that I come across -- there is very little information about retirement. Women do have to plan for retirement. Men obviously also have to plan for retirement. But we have a disproportionate percentage of women workers who are not getting any pensions, who have no retirement provision at all. There is an information gap there, and we're going to try to be filling that information gap -- for women, but also for men as well who find themselves in the same position.
Q Mr. Secretary -- a lot of voluntary initiatives, a lot of cooperation if you will, but other than legislation that's already introduced, I don't see any new things you're sending up to Capitol Hill who say, look, let's close this gap which is still there right now. What happened, and why?
SECRETARY REICH: We're not sending new legislation to Capitol Hill, apart from the legislation that has been proposed on minimum wage, on skills, on job training. The President has announced a number of initiatives that he wants to pursue. But believe it or not, there is a lot that can be done without new legislation under present authority, also in terms of information.
We have a great demand out there on the part of women workers and also male workers for good information about how they can, for example, plan their pensions; or companies for how they can generate and develop more pay equity, so that we don't need to -- we don't need -- it's not necessary that all our initiatives be shaped in the form of new legislative proposals. We do have them out there -- the minimum wage, the education, the job training proposals, the tax break for education and job training -- vitally important to American workers. But we want to go beyond those. And the President seeks to go beyond those.
Q As a follow-up, how can you -- tell me how receptive companies are. It doesn't sound -- you said they are, but where's the beef, so to speak?
SECRETARY REICH: Well, let me take a crack at that and then, Karen, you can talk about the beef. I travel a lot and talk to a lot of companies, a lot of CEOs, about workers -- male workers, female workers -- about diversity in the work place. Some of the best companies are beginning to understand that there really are bottom line, positive consequences in investing in their workers; in making the extra effort to find qualified women and minorities; in training their workers; in treating their workers as assets to be developed, rather than merely as costs to be cut at the slightest down turn.
In fact, recently, an independent set of research appearing in the Academy of American Management Review found that in the few days after the Labor Department announced its annual awards to those companies that had achieved great strides in diversity at the workplace, those companies stock prices went up. And we see that the Glass Ceiling Commission also found and accumulated a lot of research on the relationship between employment practices that invest in workers and the bottom line.
Institutional investors in this country, too big to move in and out of large issues of stock without affecting stock prices, are beginning to catch on. It's no accident that the California Public Employee Pension Fund, a few months ago, announced that it would look at employment practices as one of the criteria for evaluating the companies in its pension portfolio.
Other companies -- rather, other institutional investors, are following suit. There is nothing that concentrates the mind of a CEO like an inquiry from an institutional investor, as to, for example, what percentage of your payroll are you dedicating to worker training; what is your plan to achieve more diversity at your workplace? Much more effective in many instances than a government regulation.
Q And what of an American woman out there who works perhaps not for a company that is doing these things, that she hears that -- she gets paid 71 cents per dollar for comparable work to men; she's heard this kind of thing for a while; her government says it's been listening to her -- what of her? What do you tell her, that it's sufficient to work out these voluntary --
MS. NUSSBAUM: No. Women deserve more. This is clearly just a beginning. Women deserve much more. But we also, unfortunately, live in the real world. We have a very focused legislative agenda. These are initiatives that have widespread public support, and if we succeed in getting this passed through the Congress we will have done a great job for working women. And the administrative and voluntary initiatives are ones that build momentum, that say the government has a role to play in what are legitimate terms of debate; what do we expect employers to do and how do we help provide the tools to employees and their advocates to make those demands successfully on the job. That's what we hope we do with these initiatives.
SECRETARY REICH: There is also an enforcement side to this story. For example, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance at the Labor Department has managed to clean up a back load of 12 years of cases, enforcing the laws requiring that federal contractors widen the net, make an extra good-faith effort to find qualified women and minorities. We are going to vigorously enforce the law.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END3:17 P.M. EDT