The measure, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, would make it easier for workers to sue for pay inequities.
The House acted on a bill the Senate approved January 22. The House originally passed the measure as part of a larger pay discrimination package January 9. But the Senate acted only on the Ledbetter portion, which necessitated another House vote.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama made the Ledbetter bill a centerpiece of campaign events designed to highlight women’s issues.
Under the legislation, each paycheck that has been diminished by discrimination is a separate violation of civil rights law. The statute of limitations for filing a suit would run 180 days from each paycheck. A worker could recover two years of back pay.
Opponents argue that the bill eviscerates the statute of limitations, potentially subjecting businesses to lawsuits over pay decisions that date back decades at a time when they are trying to cope with the recession.
Supporters say that the bill overturns a 2007 Supreme Court decision. Ledbetter, a former supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Alabama, sued the company for paying her less than her male counterparts for 20 years.
The court held, 5-4, that Ledbetter should have filed her claim within 180 days of the initial discriminatory decision rather than nearly two decades later. She said she didn’t realize the pay discrepancy existed until a colleague placed an anonymous note in her mailbox many years later.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a strong dissent, asserted that the court majority did not understand workplace realities, such as silence about pay levels. She urged Congress to overturn the ruling.
The Ledbetter bill was originally introduced in 2007 and approved by the House that year. It was blocked by a Senate filibuster in 2008.
But after the election, Senate Democrats increased their majority from 51 to 58, with one seat still undecided. That margin allowed them to easily move the bill.
Tuesday’s House vote fell mostly along partisan lines. Democrats touted the Ledbetter bill as way to bolster the concept of equal pay for equal work.
“It’s fundamental to the values of our country,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “It’s basic to our economy. In far too many workplaces, that is not what’s done.”
His counterpart, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and ranking member of the labor committee, criticized Democrats for sending the Ledbetter bill straight to the House floor rather than putting it through the committee process.
McKeon said that the GOP did not have a chance to make changes to the bill. No amendments were allowed during the floor debate.
“This is a major fundamental change of civil rights law affecting … four statues,” McKeon said. “There has not been a full and fair debate.”
Miller dismissed Republicans as apologists for businesses that are trying to cut corners through unfair compensation. He said Ledbetter critics believe that “somehow women should underwrite these tough economic times” by suffering pay discrimination.
The Ledbetter measure was one of two bills included in the original House legislation. The other was the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow unlimited punitive and compensatory damages in wage suits and force businesses to prove that pay differences are based on factors other than sex.
The Senate has put off consideration of the paycheck bill, which was written by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut. She said that the effort to address unfair pay would continue.
“That process starts in earnest with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” DeLauro said. “I urge the Senate to build on this foundation.”