Lilly Ledbetter

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Senate Democrats vowed in a Senate hearing Thursday to take quick action on legislation that would reverse last year’s Supreme Court decision making it more difficult for victims of wage discrimination to win lawsuits.

The Democrat-controlled House passed a similar version of the bill on July 30, with representatives voting largely along party lines.

If the bill clears Congress, it would go to President Bush, who issued a veto threat shortly before the House vote, saying it effectively eliminates time limitations on lawsuits.

“This is certainly not the first time we’ve pushed a piece of legislation with a veto threat,” said Jocelyn Frye, a lawyer at the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that is a leading supporter of the bill. “As more people learn about the legislation and what it’s designed to do, and when they understand the limited, modest nature of the legislation, then some of the opposition will fade.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure but the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, which is not affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supports it. (Neither group is a government agency.)

Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the Senate would consider the bill after it addresses the looming recession with an economic stimulus package. Kennedy predicted a floor vote in the next two months, and said he has the backing of Democratic leaders.

“We’re going to get action on it one way or another,” he said after the committee held a hearing on the issue Thursday. “There’s no reason we can’t get to this very quickly.”

Economy Plan Angers Women’s Groups

Thursday’s tentative agreement between President Bush and congressional Democrats on a proposed stimulus package–which would give most workers a $300 rebate check and includes tax incentives for businesses–angered women’s rights advocates because it excludes extensions for unemployment insurance, more money for food stamps and home heating oil, and aid to state and local governments.

Women, who comprise the vast majority of the country’s poor, rely more heavily on government programs aiding low-income people.

“Certainly it is a big disappointment that so much of the package is going to ineffective business tax cuts and nothing is going to two of the most affirmative and effective stimulus measures that were on the table: unemployment insurance and food stamps,” said Joan Entmacher, a budget expert at the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy sponsored the wage-discrimination legislation last year after Lilly Ledbetter, a former employee at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama, lost her suit for damages and back pay.

Ledbetter was almost 60 years old, and near retirement, when she found out her employer had for years been paying her substantially less than her male counterparts for the same work. She discovered the disparity in 1998 when she received an anonymous letter detailing salaries at the plant. Within a month she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency charged with resolving workplace discrimination complaints, and later took her case to court.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, the majority of the justices ruled that Ledbetter was not entitled to file a lawsuit because she failed to file a claim to the government within 180 days after the discriminatory decision was made, not when she discovered it. Critics called the ruling unfair since Ledbetter had no way of filing on time because she was not aware of the discrimination.

‘Cramped Interpretation’ From the Court

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, called the ruling a “cramped interpretation” of civil rights law and urged Congress to enact legislation that would overrule the high court’s decision.

The bill retains the mandatory six-month limitation on pay discrimination claims, but overturns the justices’ ruling that the discriminatory event is what starts the six-month clock ticking.

Instead it starts the clock after each discriminatory paycheck. Since Ledbetter was still working and still receiving paychecks, this means she was well within the time limit.

In changing the timing method the bill reinstates the so-called paycheck accrual rule, which was in place until the Ledbetter case effectively nullified it.

Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., worries the bill will curb statutes of limitations and expand the class of individuals who can bring cases.

“The result will be more frivolous claims against employers and wasted litigation costs that will only benefit lawyers,” he said after the House passed its version of the bill.

A supporter of the change, Margot Dorfman, chief executive officer of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, said that unless the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Ledbetter case is corrected it would undermine business owners because employees fearful of missing the chance to file a claim would have the incentive to dash off charges even if they weren’t positive that a discriminatory act had occurred.

Female business owners, she added, tend to offer equal pay, putting them at a competitive disadvantage with employers who will now be off the hook if pay inequity–difficult to uncover and prove–is not discovered and acted on within 180 days of the biased decision.

Moreover, it would “right a fundamental wrong,” she testified at a hearing Thursday of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in Washington.

Gender Wage Gap Persists

More than 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay men and women unequal wages if they hold the same job, women’s rights advocates are still battling a gender wage gap. In 2006, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to statistics released last summer by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Different occupations, parenthood and number of work hours fail to fully explain pay gaps, according to an August 2007 study by the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Since the Supreme Court issued its ruling last spring, pay equity has risen on the national women’s rights agenda.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York made the subject of equal pay the centerpiece of her campaign Web site shortly after she announced her candidacy. At the same time she reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help curb pay discrimination and expand legal tools outlined in the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Clinton’s rivals Barack Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, and John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, back the Ledbetter bill and other efforts to narrow the pay gap.

Women’s rights advocates are also pushing the Fair Pay Act, which would ensure employers pay men and women equally if they work in jobs requiring similar skill levels, effort, responsibility and working conditions. The bill, proponents assert, would make salaries in jobs held predominantly by women, such as nursing, approach salaries in fields dominated by men, such as truck driving.

“Discrimination based on sex is still deeply embedded in our society, and anyone who thinks it’s not has got their head in the clouds,” Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who champions the Fair Pay Act, said Thursday.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

“Pay Data Dispels Pop Myth of Pink-Ceiling”:

“Maloney and Ginsburg Parry High Court Ruling”:

National Partnership for Women and Families:

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