House Democrats Push Bills to Extend Limits on Pay Discrimination Lawsuits

January 8, 2009 - 7:24 PM
House Democrats expect to pass two anti-pay discrimination bills Friday that Republicans charge will not only increase lawsuits but virtually end a statute of limitations for filing claims against employers.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), center, holds a bible as he stands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, during the mock swearing-in ceremony for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), right, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(CNSNews.com) – House Democrats expect to pass two anti-pay discrimination bills Friday that Republicans charge will not only increase the number of lawsuits but virtually end the statute of limitations for filing claims against employers.
 
“This should be the highest priority to us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during a Thursday conference call with reporters. “This means economic security of our country. Tomorrow, Congress passes serious civil rights legislative reforms that prove our commitment to equality in this country.”
 
The two proposals would apply to both the private and public sector, said Aaron Albright, spokesman for Democratic members of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
 
“Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act applies to all federal, state, and local employees, and the Congressional Review Act says all those acts apply to congressional employees as well,” Albright told CNSNews.com.
 
This could be relevant if the equal-pay proposals are signed into law by President-elect Barack Obama. Salary information for congressional staff is public information.
 
Supporters of the legislation point to Census Bureau statistics that show, on average, women earn 77 cents for every $1 earned by men in the workforce.
 
While serving as a senator, Obama paid women 78 percent of what he paid men, according to a CNSNews.com analysis in September of data from the Secretary of the Senate report. Both Census and the Secretary of the Senate statistics are without regard to education, experience or job position. See Previous Story 
 
One of the bills, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed the House last year but was stopped by a Republican Senate filibuster. Pelosi hopes the Senate will pass the legislation this time.
 
If passed, this law would extend the limit on how long employees can wait before suing an employer for pay discrimination. The current limit is 180 days after the discrimination began. The House proposal would extend that to whenever the last paycheck was issued.
 
The legislation was named after Lilly Ledbetter, who was a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Gadsden, Ala. She sued for pay discrimination before retiring after 19 years because she had made $6,500 less per year than the lowest paid male supervisor.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out her case, saying she waited too long to file a complaint. The court said that under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an employee must sue within 180 days of a decision regarding pay if alleged discrimination is involved. Ledbetter spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August.
 
“Companies got the Supreme Court’s message loud and clear: They will not be punished for pay discrimination,” Ledbetter said Thursday in explaining the need for the bill.
 
The Supreme Court’s ruling has been cited in 300 court cases as a precedent, said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the liberal National Women’s Law Center.
 
The other proposal, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would require new oversight of companies by the Labor Department to find pay inequality. If disparity is discovered, an employer would be required to prove why the disparity in pay is necessary.
 
The proposed law also would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information; require the Labor Department to provide training to employers that have pay disparity; and create a new program to help strengthen the negotiating skills of female employees.
 
“I call on the Senate to act both on the Lilly Ledbetter and the Paycheck Fairness Act,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said, anticipating easy passage in the House. “Doing anything less shortchanges women and families everywhere.”
 
Republicans argue the two proposals are nothing more than a bonanza for trial lawyers.
 
“Proponents of this bill present it as a modest change in the law to protect women from discrimination in the workplace, which by the way is a laudable goal, something we all agree with,” Alexa Marrero, spokesman for the Republican members of the House Education and Labor Committee, told CNSNews.com. “The reality of these bills is going to be far different.”
 
Nonetheless, Marrero said she expected the legislation to pass the House.
 
Republicans think that if the statute of limitations is ditched – under the Lilly Ledbetter bill – employees could sue their employer decades after the alleged discrimination occurred. Further, Republicans think the statute of limitations serves a purpose in encouraging timely claims and preventing abuse of the system. 
 
Meanwhile, the Paycheck Fairness Act opens employers to unlimited punitive damages and makes class action lawsuits easier, Republicans claim.
 
“We are basically talking about a payback for trial lawyers. The benefits in this legislation are to the trial bar,” Marrero said. “Both bills would increase the cost of lawsuits and the number of lawsuits. It’s going to be hard on the economy. They’re going to put worker pensions in jeopardy.”
 
But the tough economic times demonstrate the need for the legislation, said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.
 
“In this economy, every dollar counts for families and working individuals,” Miller said.
 
But pay discrimination is already illegal, said Carrie Lukas, vice president for policy and economics at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum. She said these bills are about litigation and government control.
 
“The Paycheck Fairness Act would increase government’s role in how wages are set,” Lukas told CNSNews.com. “Their view is that wages are incorrectly determined by the marketplace, and this would be a politicization of wages in the workforce.”