Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The House will likely vote this week on two pay-discrimination bills that were passed by the last Congress but stopped in the Senate by Republican-led filibusters.

The first measure, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, would overturn a May 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult for employees to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace. The bill, named after an employee who worked at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, would extend the statute of limitations for claims filed by employees regarding pay discrimination.

Noting that women on average earn 78 cents for every dollar paid to men, the second bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would require an employer to bear the burden of proving that pay differentials are job related.

The Supreme Court held that Ms. Ledbetter had to file her claim within 180 days of the “unlawful employment practice,” which was Goodyear’s decision to pay her less than it paid men performing similar jobs. Ms. Ledbetter unsuccessfully argued that each paycheck reflecting the discriminatory wage difference represented a new violation of the Equal Pay Act.

The bill the House will consider as early as Wednesday would give a worker 180 days to file a grievance after getting a perceived discriminatory paycheck.

The House passed the Ledbetter bill in 2007, but the Senate could muster only 57 of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The bill has a much better chance of passage this year, now that the Democrats have gained as many as eight seats in the Senate.

Business groups strongly oppose any change to the current law’s statute of limitations.

“Statutes of limitations are part of every law in this country for a reason,” said Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would allow women to sue employers for possible compensatory and punitive damages. Businesses object that these damages would be awarded “even in cases where no intentional discrimination is demonstrated,” said Mr. Johnson, who cited studies by the Government Accountability Office that traced much of the male-female pay differential to seniority, education and other legitimate, nondiscriminatory factors.

The remaining, unexplained pay gap should not be assumed to be based on gender discrimination, he said.

The House passed the Paycheck Fairness Act in July. The bill stalled in the Senate, but Democrats hope to overcome a filibuster with their much larger majority.

The law would expand class-action cases and represents “a giveaway to the trial bar,” Mr. Johnson said.

“Pay discrimination exists, although it’s not rampant,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO. “There will not be a rash of lawsuits” if these bills are passed.

“Business hasn’t seen a workplace regulation bill they liked in 75 years,” Mr. Samuel said.

Businesses are “disappointed [Democrats] are ramrodding these bills the way they are,” Mr. Johnson said.

House Democrats reject that charge.

“Both bills went through the committee process in the last Congress, including multiple hearings with participation from business interests, markups and bipartisan approval by the full House,” said Aaron Albright, press secretary for the House Education and Labor Committee.

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