/ January 29, 2009

Obama’s First Bill Sets a New Tone for Employment Rights

On Tuesday, Congress sent the White House what will be the first legislation that President Obama signs into law — a bill that makes it easier for women and others to sue for pay discrimination, even if the discrimination has prevailed for years, or decades.

This bill – which the House passed on a 250-177 vote – is a top priority for labor and women’s rights groups. It is a response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which dictated that a person must file a claim of discrimination within 180 days of a company’s initial decision to pay a worker less than it pays another worker doing the same job. The new bill will extend the statute of limitations for another 180 days for every discriminatory paycheck.

The measure, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after receiving a congratulatory phone call from Obama, is “a bold step to move away from that parsimonious interpretation” of the Supreme Court.

Supporters argued that the 5-4 Supreme Court decision throwing out Ledbetter’s claim was unrealistic for most work environments in which employees are unaware of, or even barred from talking about, the salaries of their co-workers. They said it rewards companies that manage to keep wage discrimination secret for more than six months.

Opponents contended that the legislation would gut the statute of limitations, encourage lawsuits and be a boon to trial lawyers. They also argued that employees could wait to file claims in hopes of reaping larger damage awards.
The plaintiff in the case, Lilly Ledbetter, argued that she did not become aware of the pay discrepancy until near the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.

While former president Bush and Senate Republicans blocked the legislation in the last session of Congress, Obama strongly supports it and the Democratic-controlled Congress moved it to the top of the agenda for the new session that opened this month.

The Ledbetter bill focuses on pay and other workplace discrimination against women: The Census Bureau last year estimated that women still only receive about 78 cents for every dollar that men get for doing equivalent jobs. But the measure, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also applies to discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin, disability or age.

Source: The Chicago Sun Times

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