On Equal Pay Day, some key steps to better workplaces

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  • Deb Fischer proposes act to keep workers informed, reduce fear of asking about wages
  • Workplace Advancement Act would help create more transparent workplaces, she says

Deb Fischer is Nebraska's senior US senator and a Republican. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Women make the world work.

Twenty-first century women are managers, entrepreneurs, public servants and CEOs. Our country is stronger for it. Despite these great strides, there's more work to do to encourage prosperity for America's families.
    Tuesday is national Equal Pay Day. Every year, it's a meaningful reminder of the need for progress so every woman, just like every man, can support herself and her family.
    Deb Fischer
    For nearly four years, I have led discussions about equal pay in the Senate. I am encouraged by interest from the White House on addressing the workplace challenges women face today. To that end, I have reintroduced two proposals I believe will make a real difference for families: the Workplace Advancement and the Strong Families acts.
    The Workplace Advancement Act aims to empower employees, especially women, with information about wages so they can be informed advocates for their compensation. Importantly for employers, the act would not impose new federal regulations, and no employer would be compelled to disclose salary information. It simply prevents retaliatory action against employees who ask after it.
    When it comes to discussing wages in the workplace, sometimes, it can hurt to ask. Fear of retaliation and a culture of silence keep people in the dark about how their compensation compares with their colleagues or peers.
    The Workplace Advancement Act would be a critical step toward lifting that fear. If we free up information, we can create more transparent workplaces.
    A simple principle is at play here: Knowledge is power. When workers, especially women, can seek more information without fear of retribution, they can more confidently pursue favorable work and wage arrangements. Hopefully, women can use the information they get to better negotiate arrangements that make sense for them. For example, they might be willing to accept less pay if they can have flexibility for doctor's appointments, family time or simply a day of self-care.
    The bill contains language similar to an executive order President Barack Obama issued in 2014. Many congressional Democrats requested this action. Some even praised it.
    Equal Pay Day is also an opportunity to draw attention to other issues about which families care. Paid leave is one such example.
    Working Americans juggle a lot of responsibilities, at home and in the workplace. They can often feel squeezed as they strive to balance it all. The Strong Families Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored with my colleague Sen. Angus King from Maine, encourages businesses to offer paid leave to women and men.
    While this bill would apply to salaried individuals, it would especially help hourly employees. Workers would be allowed to take this leave on an hourly basis, which means hourly employees could do things such as take their mother to the doctor without losing pay for those hours.
    Specifically, the Strong Families Act creates a tax credit to incentivize businesses to offer up to 12 weeks of paid family leave per year. Employers would receive a nonrefundable tax credit equal to 25% of what they pay employees during their leave. According to a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, Americans generally support paid leave. That same study notes that 87% of Americans either strongly or somewhat favored providing tax credits to employers that provide paid leave.
    Promoting more flexible arrangements such as these is also likely to work for employers, too. Often, small or family-owned businesses simply can't afford paid leave for their employees. The tax credit changes the equation. Under my legislation, the tax credit would be in effect for two years. After that time, Congress could examine how many employers are using the tax credit and which employees are taking paid leave in a study directed by the bill. With this new information, we could determine how this innovative approach is working for American families.
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    Fifty-three Republicans and five Democrats in the Senate supported a version of the Workplace Advancement Act last Congress.
    With bipartisan support, these bills are possible.
    Let's take advantage of this rare moment when we have common ground to come together so we can look families in the eye and say: We heard you, and we are taking action.