Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Nears Passage in Senate

By Jim Abrams | January 22, 2009 | 6:07 PM EST
Washington (AP) - Congress is within reach of approving a wage discrimination bill that would mark a clear shift in attitudes toward labor issues with the inception of the Obama administration.
A final Senate vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act could come as early as Thursday evening. The measure would then move back to the House, which is expected to act quickly to send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The bill, which would reverse a 2007 Supreme Court decision imposing tough time limits on when a worker could sue over alleged pay discrimination, faced a veto last year by President George W. Bush and died in the Senate.
In contrast, Obama has embraced the measure and invited Lilly Ledbetter, the retired Alabama tire company worker whose lawsuit inspired the legislation, to accompany him on the train trip bringing him to Washington for the inauguration.
The House approved the legislation, coupled with another labor rights bill, on Jan. 9, the first week of the new session of Congress, signaling that labor rights bills that made little headway during the Bush administration will be at the top of the agenda this year. The bill paves the way for considering more controversial labor measures, including one that would take away a company's right to demand a secret ballot when workers are seeking to organize.
The House must vote again on Ledbetter because the Senate separated it from the second labor rights bill, which makes it easier for victims of gender discrimination to receive compensatory and punitive damages.
The Ledbetter bill would clarify that every paycheck resulting from discrimination would constitute a new violation, extending the 180-day statute of limitations for filing a claim. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision denying Ledbetter's complaint, ruled that a worker must file a claim within 180 days of the initial decision to pay a worker less, even if the worker did not discover the pay disparity until years later.
Ledbetter, who was in the Capitol to watch the debate, said it was only at the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. - when someone left an anonymous note in her mailbox - that she became aware that she was getting paid less than her male counterparts. "It turns out that I was earning 70 to 85 percent of what my male colleagues were getting. I started out at a lower salary, and they gave me lower raises, over and over again."
The Supreme Court decision, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., "set us back 40 years in our fight for equal opportunity in the workplace."
A final Senate vote took a step forward when the chamber voted 55-40 to reject an alternative by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
Hutchison and other Republicans contended that the legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would effectively neutralize the statute of limitations, subject companies to more lawsuits and be a bonanza for trial lawyers.
"This bill is about effectively eliminating the statute of limitations on pay discrimination," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Job creators have enough to worry about these days. We shouldn't add the threat of never-ending lawsuits."
Hutchison's approach would have codified existing discovery rules by stating that the statute of limitations would be triggered when a person has, or should be expected to have, enough information to support a reasonable suspicion that discrimination was occurring.
Hutchison said her alternative struck the right balance, giving employees the opportunity to seek redress for discrimination while protecting businesses from employees who might wait months or years to file claims in order to drive up damage awards.
But opponents contended Hutchison's proposal could weaken employee rights. It "would impose additional burdens on the victims of pay discrimination to prove a negative: that they had no reason to have known about the discrimination," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.
Mikulski said it could lead to more lawsuits because people would go to court out of fear they would miss the legal deadline. It "could create a very hostile and nasty work environment."
Mikulski said her bill would "restore a bright line for determining the timeliness of pay discrimination claims."
Democrats also defeated other GOP proposals to remove provisions, saying those affected by discrimination, as well as the person directly involved, could file claims and saying discrimination could apply to "other practices" - such as promotions or transfers - as well as wages. Democrats said the bill follows the language of current civil rights law.
Workplace discrimination such as wage disparity was banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but more than four decades later women still receive only about 78 cents for every dollar earned by men for doing the same work. The Ledbetter bill would apply to other forms of discrimination such as that based on race, ethnicity or national origin as well as gender.
Senate Nears Passage of Wage Discrimination Bill