01.23.09

Senate Passes Leahy-Backed Fair Pay Act

WASHINGTON (Friday, Jan. 23, 2009) – A bill backed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to help protect workers from pay discrimination passed the Senate Thursday night, despite several attempts to weaken the legislation.  Leahy was one of 54 Senators to introduce the legislation two weeks ago.  Efforts to pass the bill in the last Congress were stalled by Senate Republicans.

The bill passed Thursday addresses a 2007 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire which ruled that workers have only 180 days after the original pay setting decision to sue employers for pay discrimination, regardless of how long the unfair pay continues.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, named for woman who brought the case against Goodyear, amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to guarantee the statute of limitations runs from the date of the actual payment of a discriminatory wage, not just from the time of hiring.  The legislation will allow employees to seek compensation for each discriminating paycheck, not just during the first 180 days of discrimination.  The House of Representatives passed companion legislation on Jan. 9, and is expected to consider the Senate passed bill next week.

“The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is the only bill that gives workers the time to consider how they have been treated and the time to work out solutions with their employers,” said Leahy.  “This bipartisan bill fulfills Congress’ goal of creating incentives for employers voluntarily to correct any disparities in pay that they find.  Most importantly, it ensures that employers do not benefit from continued discrimination. I support the ability of all employees to receive equal pay for equal work.”

Ledbetter appeared before the Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs, at a September hearing where she testified about the wage discrimination she encountered.  Ledbetter discovered just weeks before her retirement that her employer had been paying her significantly less than male coworkers performing the same job.  The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision overruled a jury verdict that found that Goodyear Tire had underpaid Ledbetter by more than $200,000.  The Fair Pay Act is one of the first bills passed by the Senate in the 111th Congress, and it is expected to be one of this first bills to be signed into law by President Obama.

 

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy

Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009

January 21, 2009

We must pass the bipartisan Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act so that employers are not rewarded for deceiving workers about their illegal conduct. 

One of the Justice Department’s roles in our federal system of government is to protect the civil rights of all Americans, including those that protect against discrimination.  The Bush Administration’s erosion of long-standing interpretation of our anti-discrimination laws has created a new obstacle for victims of pay discrimination to receive justice.  This was a mistake when advanced by the Justice Department and a mistake when five justices on the Supreme Court adopted the Justice Department’s erroneous interpretation of congressional intent. It culminated in an erroneous opinion written by Justice Alito. 

I understand that members on the other side of the aisle have introduced partisan amendments to the legislation.  It is my belief that all of these amendments should be opposed for one simple reason: They will allow illegal pay discrimination to continue.

I expect we will hear from some opponents of the bill that somehow this legislation will encourage workers who are being paid less as a result of discrimination to delay filing suit for equal pay.  This argument defies logic.  Anyone who heard Ms. Ledbetter’s testimony before either the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Senate Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee knows that Ms. Ledbetter, like other victims of pay discrimination, have no incentive to delay filing suit. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter, employers now have a great incentive to delay revealing their discriminatory conduct – blanket immunity.  The reality is that many employers do not allow their employees to learn how their compensation compares to their co-workers.  Workers like Ms. Ledbetter and her family are the ones hurt by the on-going diminished paychecks, not their corporate employers.  These victims have the burden of proving the discrimination occurred and that evidentiary task is only made more difficult as time goes on. 

The bipartisan Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009 does not disturb the protections built into existing law for employers, such as limiting back pay in most cases to two years.  The legislation does not eliminate the existing statute of limitations.  Instead, it reinstates the interpretation of when the 180-day time limit begins to run, an interpretation that had been the law under undermined by the Bush administration and at its urging by the United States Supreme Court.  The bill corrects this injustice to allow workers who are continuing to be short-changed to challenge that on-going discrimination when the employer conceals its initial discriminatory pay decision. 

Opponents of the bipartisan Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act may raise other excuses for opposing equal pay for equal work.  They will no doubt claim that somehow trial lawyers will benefit.  The reality is that the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision could actually lead to more litigation because workers will feel the need to file premature claims so that time does not run out.  The Congressional Budget Office has concluded that this legislation “would not establish a new cause of action for claims of pay discrimination” and “would not significantly affect the number of filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission” or with the federal courts. 

Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to protect employees against discrimination with respect to compensation because of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin but the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision goes against both the spirit and clear intent of our antidiscrimination laws. 

It also sends the message to employers that wage discrimination cannot be punished as long as it is kept under wraps.  At a time when one third of private sector employers have rules prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with each other, the Court’s decision ignores a reality of the workplace – pay discrimination is often intentionally concealed. 

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is the only bill that gives workers the time to consider how they have been treated and the time to work out solutions with their employers.  Our bipartisan bill fulfills Congress’ goal of creating incentives for employers voluntarily to correct any disparities in pay that they find.  Most importantly, our bipartisan bill ensures that employers do not benefit from continued discrimination. 

I will not support amendments that weaken this bipartisan bill.  I support the ability of all employees to receive equal pay for equal work. 

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