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And a Congressional celebration
Today's NY Times
January 28, 2009
Congress Relaxes Rules on Suits Over Pay Inequity
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — Congress gave final approval on Tuesday to a civil rights bill providing women, blacks and Hispanics with powerful new tools to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace. It is likely to be the first significant legislation signed by President Obama.
The 250-to-177 vote in the House came five days after the Senate passed the bill, 61 to 36.
The bill, named for Lilly M. Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, would make it easier for workers to win lawsuits claiming pay discrimination based on sex, race, religion, national origin, age or disability.
Ms. Ledbetter became a champion of women’s rights and an outspoken supporter of Mr. Obama after the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision in 2007, rejected her lawsuit against Goodyear.
A jury had found that the company paid Ms. Ledbetter less than male supervisors, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court did not deny that she had suffered discrimination, but said she should have filed her claim within 180 days of “the alleged unlawful employment practice” — the initial decision to pay her less than men.
The bill would relax the statute of limitations, making clear that each new paycheck is a violation of the law if it results “in whole or in part” from a discriminatory pay decision made in the past.
As a senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama supported the bill, and he danced with Ms. Ledbetter last week at one of the inaugural balls. By contrast, President George W. Bush had threatened to veto the bill, saying it would encourage a flood of lawsuits by workers asserting “stale claims.”
The chief sponsor of the bill, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, offered this advice to employers: “If you don’t want to be sued, don’t discriminate.”
Votes on the Ledbetter bill generally followed party lines. In the House, three Republicans voted for it, and five Democrats voted against it. In the Senate, five Republicans voted for the bill, and no Democrats opposed it.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said passage of the bill was “quite a joyful occasion.”
It was the second time in four months that Congress has rejected restrictive interpretations of civil rights laws by the Supreme Court. In September, Congress repudiated several rulings that had undercut the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The bill passed Tuesday says that the Supreme Court, in the Ledbetter case, undermined statutory protections that have been “bedrock principles of American law for decades.”
Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, said, “The Supreme Court decided to commit legal jujitsu to satisfy a narrow ideological agenda.” Under the Ledbetter ruling, Mr. Miller said, employers can escape responsibility for pay discrimination if they “keep it hidden for the first 180 days.”
Republicans said the bill was unfair to employers. They will be exposed to “decades-old discrimination claims that they have no ability to defend,” said Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota.
Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, said businesses could be held liable “even if the individual responsible for the alleged discrimination is no longer with the company, or perhaps not even living.”
Democrats said that, in many cases, women did not realize they were being paid less than men until years after the discrimination began. At many companies, they said, workers do not openly discuss their salaries, and pay disparities grow gradually over many years.
The bill outlaws “discrimination in compensation,” which is broadly defined to include wages and employee benefits.
Lawrence Z. Lorber, a labor law specialist who represents employers, said the bill “causes horror among some pension lawyers.” Retirees will be able to argue, in court, that their pension benefits are based on wages that were depressed by unlawful discrimination, Mr. Lorber said.
Under existing law, a victim of discrimination can recover up to two years of back pay.
The House passed a related bill this month that would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which generally requires equal pay for equal work. Those provisions are not included in the legislation being sent to the president.
Since taking office, Mr. Obama has signed one other piece of legislation, fixing the salary of the secretary of the interior.
Now we'll see what happens when it gets tested.