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Pay Discrimination Hits Fast Track House Vote Set Friday

After an election that increased the Democratic majorities in both chambers and put a Democratic president in the White House, the prospect for the bills becoming law has improved dramatically.

January 9, 2009
Two bills that would make it easier for employees to sue for pay discrimination—and collect larger damages—are poised for House approval on Friday, January 9, three days after the new session of Congress began.

Both bills were approved by the House over the last two years. But they have to be acted on again because they did not make it through the Senate.

After an election that increased the Democratic majorities in both chambers and put a Democratic president in the White House, the prospect for the bills becoming law has improved dramatically.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/thomas) would restart the statute of limitations for filing a suit with each paycheck diminished by discrimination. The Paycheck Fairness Act (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/thomas) would allow employees to pursue unlimited compensatory and punitive damages in pay suits.

The Senate won’t move quite as fast as the House. Within the next two weeks, the Senate intends to take up only the Ledbetter bill, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

“We’re going to do just that narrow issue,” Reid said at a press conference Wednesday.

Critics say the bills would significantly change civil rights law and foster costly lawsuits at a time when businesses are struggling to survive the recession.

The measures were put on a fast track by House Democratic leaders to address what they call pressing economic and social problems for women caused by workplace bias.

“It is the highest priority to us,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a press conference call Thursday. “It is very important because of what it means for the economic security of our country.”

Proponents of the Ledbetter bill say that it is designed to overturn 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 the same job for 20 years.

Ledbetter said she didn’t realize the discrepancy existed until a colleague placed an anonymous note in her mailbox at work many years later. The Supreme Court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed a suit within 180 days of the initial discriminatory action rather than nearly two decades later.

The Ledbetter bill would make each paycheck a continuing violation. “We will reinstitute the law as it was before the Supreme Court decision,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Miller said that “especially in this economy when every dollar counts” the Ledbetter decision has to be overturned because it “is costing women across the country millions and millions and millions of dollars.”

President-elect Barack Obama often highlighted the Ledbetter bill during his campaign to increase his support among women. Pelosi calls Ledbetter “our heroine.”

The House also will vote on Friday on the Paycheck Fairness Act. That measure would change a federal pay discrimination law, the Equal Pay Act, so that plaintiffs could sue for unlimited compensatory and punitive damages.

It would make it more difficult for employers to argue that the pay discrepancies are based on factors other than sex. The measure also would prohibit company retaliation against employees for discussing wages with other employees.

Opponents of the paycheck bill say it would apply to unintentional discrimination. They also say that both bills would make it easier to file class-action lawsuits and that the Ledbetter bill would significantly alter the statute of limitations for all discrimination claims, not just those involving pay.

“Unfortunately, these bills do little to prevent actual instances of unlawful discrimination, but they will open the floodgates to unwarranted litigation against employers at a time when businesses are struggling to retain and create jobs,” Jen Kubicki, vice president for human resource policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, wrote in a letter to House members.

The business community will have more time to make its arguments about the bills to the Senate.

“They’re collectively so far over the top, we have a shot to defeat them in the Senate,” said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Only the Ledbetter bill came up for a Senate vote last year. Republicans blocked it with a filibuster, which requires at least 41 votes. After GOP losses in the 2008 election, Senate Republicans are currently at 41, pending a final decision on a recount in Minnesota.

Nonetheless, Republicans are ready to fight the pay measures. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said at a press conference Wednesday that most difficult bills have had to meet the filibuster threshold.

“I cannot imagine that the Ledbetter legislation would not be subject to 60 votes,” he said. “But that’s routine, not controversial. It’s not unusual for a senator on either side to have a problem with a bill.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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