Friday, January 23, 2009

Senate passes wage discrimination bill

Senate passes wage discrimination bill

By JIM ABRAMS

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A wage discrimination bill that heralds the pro-labor policies of the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House cleared the Senate Thursday and could be on President Barack Obama's desk within days.

The legislation reverses a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that narrowly defines the time period during which a worker can file a claim of wage discrimination, even if the worker is unaware for months or years that he or she is getting less than colleagues doing the same job. It has been a priority for women's groups seeking to narrow the wage gap between men and women.

The House is expected to act quickly to again approve the measure, sending it to Obama for his signature. The House passed a nearly identical version two weeks ago but then combined it with another bill that the Senate didn't consider.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that "the first bill that President Obama will sign will be this piece of legislation." He said the bill would send an important message because "this administration stands for equality and fairness."

Obama strongly backs the measure and invited Lilly Ledbetter, the retired Alabama tire company worker whose lawsuit inspired the legislation, to accompany him on the train trip bringing him to Washington for the inauguration.

Former President George W. Bush threatened to veto the bill when it came up in the past, and last year it died in the Senate.

The vote was 61-36. Republicans demanded that the bill hit a 60-vote threshold for passage as a condition for moving on the legislation.

The House approved the legislation during the first week of the new session of Congress, signaling that labor rights bills that made little headway during the Bush administration will be at the top of the agenda this year.

"We feel free at last," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chief sponsor of the legislation. She said the strong vote, which included all 16 female senators — including four Republicans — was "a sign of what Democratic leadership means."

The bill paves the way for considering more controversial labor measures, including one that would take away a company's right to demand a secret ballot when workers are seeking to organize. Reid said that could come up this summer.

The Ledbetter bill would clarify that every paycheck resulting from discrimination would constitute a new violation, extending the 180-day statute of limitations for filing a claim. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision denying Ledbetter's complaint, ruled that a worker must file a claim within 180 days of the initial decision to pay a worker less, even if the worker did not discover the pay disparity until years later.

Ledbetter, 70, who was in the Capitol to watch the debate, said it was only at the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. — when someone left an anonymous note in her mailbox — that she became aware that she was getting paid less than her male counterparts. "It turns out that I was earning 70 to 85 percent of what my male colleagues were getting. I started out at a lower salary, and they gave me lower raises, over and over again."

The Supreme Court decision, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., "set us back 40 years in our fight for equal opportunity in the workplace."

Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 55-40 to reject an alternative by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. She and other Republicans contended that the legislation would effectively neutralize the statute of limitations, subject companies to more lawsuits and be a bonanza for trial lawyers.

"This bill is about effectively eliminating the statute of limitations on pay discrimination," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Job creators have enough to worry about these days. We shouldn't add the threat of never-ending lawsuits."

Hutchison's approach would have codified existing discovery rules by stating that the statute of limitations would be triggered when a person has, or should be expected to have, enough information to support a reasonable suspicion that discrimination was occurring.

Hutchison said her alternative would give employees the opportunity to seek redress for discrimination while protecting businesses from employees who might wait months or years to file claims in order to drive up damage awards.

But opponents contended Hutchison's proposal could weaken employee rights. It "would impose additional burdens on the victims of pay discrimination to prove a negative: that they had no reason to have known about the discrimination," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Mikulski said it could lead to more lawsuits because people would go to court out of fear they would miss the legal deadline. It "could create a very hostile and nasty work environment."

Mikulski said her bill would "restore a bright line for determining the timeliness of pay discrimination claims."

Workplace discrimination such as wage disparity was banned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964; but more than four decades later, women still receive only about 78 cents for every dollar earned by men for doing the same work. The Ledbetter bill would apply to other forms of discrimination such as that based on race, ethnicity or national origin as well as gender.

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The bill is S. 181.

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