House Democratic leaders pledge to pass equal pay laws

In an effort to correct a recent US Supreme Court decision that limits a worker's right to seek redress from an employer who practices pay discrimination, the US House of Representatives will likely pass two bills this week that would expand equal pay laws.

On a teleconference with reporters, Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the first bill is named, discussed the harm pay discrimination causes and urged passage of the bill. “Women from all over the country have told me how they are paid less for doing the same job as their male colleagues – and now there’s nothing they can do,” she said. “Congress has the opportunity to restore the promise that the Supreme Court broke in my case and protect women from pay discrimination in the future by enacting both the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.”

Ledbetter, a former 19-year employee and supervisor at Goodyear Tire, accidentally discovered that she had been paid less than male employees in her workplace. She found evidence that she earned between 15 and 40 percent than other supervisors with similar experience and job performance reviews.

After filing a lawsuit against Goodyear and winning a jury award for back pay and damages, Ledbetter's victory was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 2007. The high court found that discrimination had occurred, but it insisted that federal law requires that a lawsuit such as Ledbetter's must be filed within six months of the first discriminatory paycheck or action, regardless of whether or not she could have known about it.

'This ruling just doesn't make sense in the real world,' she stated. Employers should not be allowed to profit by paying some employees fewer wages for the same work, she said.

The message from the Supreme Court in her case was clear, Ledbetter continued. '[Employers] will not be punished for pay discrimination, if they do it long enough and cover it up well enough.'

The bills scheduled to be considered this week would close that loophole and create legal incentives for corporations to reexamine their pay practices and close the pay gap between men and women.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called Ledbetter a 'heroine' for her battle for equal pay for not only herself but for all women and all workers. She described passage of the bill as 'the highest priority.'

“Equal pay is an issue of fundamental fairness,” Speaker Pelosi told reporters. “But, as families grapple with difficult economic times, equal pay for equal work is often about daily survival for millions of families.'

Pelosi pledged that the House would pass this 'serious civil rights legislation' on Friday, Jan. 9.

Citing poverty and low-income statistics for women-headed households, Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, said, fair pay 'is a matter of urgency for women and the families they support. We cannot wait another day.'

Greenberger also warned that the Supreme Court decision in the Ledbetter case, despite its unfairness and irrationality, is now being used by courts to throw out other anti-discrimination cases. She pointed to recent media reports indicating that since the Supreme Court ruling, 300 other individuals with pending discrimination cases based on gender, race, and other protected categories 'lost their right to equal pay.'

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, stated, “This is a matter of fairness and simple justice. American workers need to know that they will be treated fairly and equitably, especially in these trying economic times.”

The question of fair pay is not just a gender issue, Henderson noted. 'To leave the high court ruling in place means that women, people of color, older Americans and people with disabilities will have an even more difficult time proving pay discrimination,' he concluded.

The House of Representative held hearings on the issue and passed the same bills by large bipartisan majorities in 2007. The Senate fell three votes short of overturning a Republican filibuster, however. Supporters of the bills believe they may be the first package of major legislation signed into law by the incoming Obama administration.