January 11, 2009 (San Diego) — Two landmark bills aimed at helping women employees achieve equal pay for equal work and obtain judgments against employers who violate the law have passed the House of Representatives and will now go to the Senate. San Diego County's Congressional delegation split down party lines, with Democrats Susan Davis and Bob Filner voting yes, while Republicans Brian Bilbray, Duncan D. Hunter and Darrell Issa voted no on both bills.
The bills were introduced in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Lilly Ledbetter (see photo), who worked nearly 20 years at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama. Ledbetter filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination immediately after she found out that she was the lowest paid supervisor at the plant, even though she had more experience than her male colleagues. A jury ruled in favor of Ledbetter.
But the Supreme Court decided that the time limit for her claim had expired, since the first discrimination occurred almost 20 years before Ledbetter found out about the pay disparity. The Supreme Court limited any legal action to 180 days after the first incident of discrimination. But since many employers prohibit employees from discussing their pay with other workers, the high court ruling makes it difficult for a new employee to discover gender discrimination in time to take action and enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which requires equal pay for equal work.
H.R. 11, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, seeks to restore the law altered by the high court's ruling. The measure would require that each paycheck resulting from a discriminatory pay decision would count as a new violation and reset the 180-day clock.
H.R. 12, the Paycheck Fairness Act, seeks to assure that employers comply with the Equal Pay Act. Today, women earn only 78 cents for every dollar earned by a man doing the same job. African-American and Hispanic women earn even less--just 66 and 55 cents respectively compared to men. H.R. closes loophopes so that an employer could not refute a pay discrimination claim by claiming factors unrelated to the job; employers would have to prove a valid business reason for any pay differential. H.R. 12 would also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their pay--eliminating policies that silence workers and allow employers to hide discriminatory pay practices. The bill would also allow women to sue for punitive damages in addition to compensatory (actual) damages, just as workers and businesses can already do for discrimination based on race or national origin.
H.R. 11 passed the House by a 256 to 163 margin, with 246 Democrats voting yes but only 10 Republican yes votes. H.R. 12 was passed by a 247 to 171 margin, with 244 Democrats voting yes and only 3 Republicans voting in favor of the bill.
President Bush threatened to veto this legislation, but President-Elect Barack Obama has pledged to sign it after he is sworn in on January 20th, if it is passed by the Senate.
To contact your Congressional members or Senators, visit East County Magazineâ€™s Citizens Action Center at www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=0809soundoff .
To learn more about these bills, visit www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-12 and www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-11. Those sites include summaries and full text of bills, current status, inks to floor speeches and related legislation
Many major newspapers have run editorials calling for passage of the bills:
The New York Times observed: "The impact of the Ledbetter decision has been broad injustice. As Robert Pear reported in The Times on Monday, courts around the country have cited the decision hundreds of times as a reason for rejecting lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability, without regard to the underlying merits of the individual cases."
Business interests have opposed the measures, arguing that they will increase litigation and liability by employers, and may result in claims being filed years after a discriminatory act:
"Higher labor costs will result from a pair of bills designed to create new lawsuit possibilities in cases of alleged wage discrimination," the Wall Street Journal projected:
Labor and women's groups, including the National Organization for Women, support the measures. "It's a one-two punch for women, that could knock out many pay inequities," said NOW President Kim Gandy: