WASHINGTON (Jan. 12, 2009)-The U.S. House of Representatives has passed two bills designed to help victims of pay discrimination. The bills were motivated by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling against the claims of a former supervisor at Goodyear's Gadsden, Ala., plant.
The Lilly Ledbetter Act, which amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to make it easier for women and minorities to sue employers for pay discrimination, was approved by a 247-171 vote Jan. 9. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which puts gender-based discrimination on a par with other forms of discrimination in seeking compensatory and punitive damages, passed 256-163 the same day.
Both bills were occasioned by the story of Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at the Goodyear Gadsden plant from 1978 until she retired in 1998. Shortly before her retirement, Ledbetter discovered she was being paid 15 percent less than the 15 male supervisors at the facility and sued the company for back pay and punitive damages.
The Northern Alabama federal district court ruled in Ledbetter's favor, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court on Goodyear's appeal. Under Title VII, the appeals court ruled, Ledbetter had to file her discrimination claim within 180 days of the first discriminatory paycheck. In May 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Goodyear's favor.
The Supreme Court decision caused a firestorm of criticism from labor and civil rights groups, which pointed out it is virtually impossible to uncover pay discrimination within 180 days of the first tainted paycheck. Business interests, however, praised the ruling, saying that a decision in Ledbetter's favor would have opened a floodgate of litigation.
The Ledbetter Act clarifies Title VII, stating that each new paycheck after an initial discriminatory paycheck constitutes a new violation of the law. Besides its language on gender-based discrimination, the Paycheck Fairness Act puts the burden on employers to prove that paycheck inequity is not gender-based and bars employers from punishing workers who discuss salaries with co-workers.
"This legislation hits home," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a prepared statement after passage of the bills. "It helps America's working meet the challenges that their families face economically, and it is about ending discrimination."
Pelosi also called the Ledbetter bill "a real tribute to a heroine."
Both bills move to the Senate, where quick action is expected. The Ledbetter bill passed the House in the previous Congress, but failed to reach a vote in the Senate.