WASHINGTON – Energized by the prospects of a pro-labor president, House Democrats marked the first week of the new Congress Friday by pushing through two bills to help workers, particularly women, who are victims of pay discrimination.
"Today we face a transformational moment," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chief sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act. "With a new Congress, a new administration, we have a chance to finally provide equal pay for equal work and make opportunity real for millions of American women."
The Lilly Ledbetter Act would reverse a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that a worker must file claims of wage discrimination within 180 days of the first decision to pay that worker less, even if the person was unaware of the pay disparity. The Paycheck Fairness Act would close loopholes that have enabled employers to evade the 1963 law requiring equal pay for equal work. The first passed 247-171, the second 256-163.
The Ledbetter bill could reach the Senate floor as early as next week. Democrats, who have increased their majority in the Senate, last year fell three votes short of shutting off a GOP-led filibuster that blocked the bill after it passed the House.
Republican opponents of the two measures argued that they would foster lawsuits against businesses and mainly benefit trial lawyers.
It sends a signal, said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of California, senior Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, "that the first substantive order of business is not job creation or tax relief but rather a trial lawyer boondoggle that can put jobs and worker pensions in jeopardy."
Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. She sued the company over pay discrimination when she learned, shortly before retiring after a 19-year career there, that she earned less than any male supervisor. A jury ruled in her favor, but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, threw out her complaint, saying she had failed to sue within the 180-day deadline after a discriminatory pay decision was made.
"This ruling just doesn't make sense in the real world," Ledbetter said in a telephone news conference Thursday. "In a lot of places you could get fired for asking your co-workers how much they are making."
The House bill would clarify that each paycheck resulting from discrimination would constitute a new violation, extending the 180-day statute of limitations.
"It should not become the law of the land that if you are an employer and can hide discrimination for 180 days you can get away with it," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.
The liberal Alliance for Justice said the Supreme Court decision already had seriously impacted worker rights: It said that since the 2007 ruling, federal and other courts had cited Ledbetter in 347 cases involving pay discrimination and other issues such as fair housing and the availability of sports programs for women.
The Paycheck Fairness Act puts gender-based discrimination on an equal footing with other forms of discrimination in seeking compensatory and punitive damages. It also puts the burden on employers to prove that any disparities in wages are job-related and not sex-based, and bars employers from retaliating against workers who discuss or disclose salary information with their co-workers.
The early foray into labor rights issues is a prelude to what could be the most controversial bill that Congress tackles in the first year of the Obama administration — legislation to take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be recognized.
Business groups maintain the Employee Free Choice Act is an affront to democratic principles. Unions say companies have used secret ballots to intimidate pro-union workers and that the bill could help reverse the downward trend in union membership. ___
The Ledbetter bill is H.R. 11. The Paycheck Fairness Act is H.R. 12.
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