House throws down gauntlet on wage discrimination

Score a victory for women and others who have long-suffered lower wages with only narrow legal remedies to fight for back pay.

Newly emboldened by Barack Obama’s decisive electoral victory, the U.S. House passed two wage discrimination bills by wide margins Friday sneaking in an end-run around an expected veto by outgoing President George W. Bush. Obama has signaled his enthusiastic support for the bills.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (H.R. 11) would reverse the rationale behind a controversial 2007 Supreme Court decision named for Lilly Ledbetter, a career employee of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., who filed a suit alleging decades of gender-based wage discrimination.

Ledbetter’s claim became a rallying point for civil rights activists who argued that pay discrimination laws that require workers to file claims within 180 days of the first decision to pay that worker less, even if the pay disparity was unknown to the worker, are unfair.

The House bill allows the 180-day statute of limitations time clock to re-start when either the worker discovers the discrimination or every time a pay check is issued rather than when the employee was hired and offered a lower wage.

The companion bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 12), strengthens current equal pay laws by giving victims of gender-based pay discrimination the ability to recover monetary damages and closing employer loopholes that make it possible to avoid the landmark 1963 equal pay law that enables employers to justify paying women less than men if it can prove the disparity is based on experience, education or training and not sex. According to The Associated Press, “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.”

As well, the government will be able to collect better data on wage discrimination to track problems. A problem noted by the Center for American Progress:

Women have made enormous advances toward economic equality, but gaps in income between men and women persist and only multiply over time, as the following numbers from Jessica Arons’ Center for American Progress Action Fund report, “Lifetime Losses: The Career Wage Gap” show. Passing these two bills is an important first step in addressing this problem.

$434,000: The median amount that a full-time female worker loses in wages over a 40-year period as a direct result of the gender pay gap, also known as the “career wage gap.”

78 cents: The amount that the average, full-time working woman makes for every $1 a man makes over a year.

The Republican Study Committee, an ultra-conservative issues group, emailed to me — without comment — a copy of a Jan. 9 Wall Street Journal editorial blasting the bills as a “trial lawyers bonanza.”

Business groups oppose the bills on Republican ideological grounds as a boon to litigation and threat to the free market in determining wages.

The bills are expected to get a smooth ride in the Senate early next week in anticipation of reaching President-elect Obama’s desk shortly after his inauguration.

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