- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009


President Obama on Thursday signed as his first law a measure allowing for broader legal claims of pay discrimination, saying it would “help others get the justice” that Lilly Ledbetter was denied.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is a response to a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that made it tougher for employees to file pay discrimination claims.

The measure effectively overturns the court’s ruling, and is one step of several planned as Congress considers further legislation to equalize pay.

Ms. Ledbetter, a 19-year area manager for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala., learned she was earning far less than male colleagues but could not pursue a case because, the justices ruled, the 180-day window to file a discrimination claim began with her hiring. The law amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to allow for claims within 180 days of each paycheck considered discriminatory.

Ms. Ledbetter lost more than $200,000 in wages and benefits over her career, the president said.

“It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act - that it is upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness,” Mr. Obama said during a bill signing ceremony before a few hundred people in the White House’s East Room.

Joining him were Ms. Ledbetter, first lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and congressional leaders. Mr. Obama signed the bill using several presidential pens, giving each to the congressional co-sponsors onstage. But he saved one for the law’s namesake: “This one is for Lilly,” he said, a line that earned a standing ovation.

“While this bill bears her name, Lilly knows this story isn’t just about her,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s the story of women across this country still earning just 78 cents for every dollar men earn - women of color even less - which means that today, in the year 2009, countless women are still losing thousands of dollars in salary, income and retirement savings over the course of a lifetime.”

The measure passed the House 250-177 and the Senate 61-36.

The next significant piece of legislation that Congress is expected to send to Mr. Obama is a measure to expand the popular State Children’s Heath Insurance Program, or SCHIP, for another 4 1/2 years.

The $32 billion measure,which passed the Senate late Thursday after having cleared by the House earlier this month,would add about 4 million children to the more than 7 million already covered in the program. The measure, which would be paid for with a 61-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes, would give Mr. Obama a high-profile down payment on his promise of universal health care coverage.

As for the pay-discrimination law, the president called it an important step, but “only the beginning,” adding he wants to close pay gaps between men and women. Ms. Ledbetter promised to keep fighting for the Paycheck Fairness Act and to “make sure that women have equal pay for equal work.”

That bill, which passed the House last session, would expand lawsuit damages, make it harder for businesses to justify pay disparities between employees, and mandate studies and voluntary guidelines for employers on the issue.

“With this win, we will make a big difference in the real world,” Ms. Ledbetter said at a reception with about 150 leaders of advocacy groups in the State Dining Room following the signing.

Mrs. Obama said Ms. Ledbetter “knew unfairness when she saw it and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do, plain and simple.” She said the new law is “one cornerstone of a broader commitment.”

After the first lady introduced her as “an inspiration to women and men all across the country,” Ms. Ledbetter said she felt honored and humbled.

She noted that she will “never see a cent” from Goodyear, but Mr. Obama’s signature is “an even richer reward.”

“I know my daughters and granddaughters and your daughters and your granddaughters will have a better deal,” said Ms. Ledbetter, who was a frequent presence on the campaign trail - first as a supporter of Mrs. Clinton and then as an advocate for Mr. Obama.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, attended the signing and said in a statement that the U.S. was able to “close the door on the decade-long journey of Ms. Lilly Ledbetter and return equitable treatment to all of the American work force, ensuring that every worker, regardless of their gender, age, race or religion, takes home fair and equal pay for a day’s hard work on the job.”

Mrs. Snowe, a co-sponsor, said the bill signing proves the U.S. “will continue to work in bipartisan fashion to break down the barriers of wage discrimination in our nation.”

• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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