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Pay-Discrimination Bill Coming to Vote

Human Resource Executive Online from July 24, 2007

The U.S. House is expected to pass legislation this week that will reverse a Supreme Court decision in the Lilly Ledbetter case that related to when a lawsuit seeking back pay must be filed. The law, opposed by business groups, will face a tougher battle in the Senate.

By Stephen Barlas

Expected House passage of a bill this week making it easier for employees to sue companies for pay discrimination will send the issue to the Senate where the bill may falter as other labor-backed bills have run aground.

Business groups are hoping that will be the case with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reverses a May 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a former Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. manager waited too long to sue for back pay, which she said was due to gender-based pay discrimination.

In its 5-4 ruling, the court's majority said that employees who claim unfair treatment in pay and bonuses based on gender or race must do so within 180 days of the original discriminatory action -- not within 180 days of their last paychecks.

The proposed law would reverse that, by allowing workers to file suit within 180 days of their last paychecks. It would also not require a worker who has already filed charges to keep filing new charges with each new paycheck.

Mike Eastman, executive director of labor policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, says it is his understanding the Ledbetter bill will go to the House floor the week of July 23. The bill, strongly backed by the AFL-CIO and other Democratic interest groups, is likely to pass.

Eastman says he has been told that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will introduce the Ledbetter bill in the Senate, but not before August recess. Laura Capps, Kennedy's press spokesman, did not respond to an e-mail.

Craig Orfield, spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the HELP Committee, emphasizes Enzi would oppose the Ledbetter bill. "We view this as another vague and overreaching bill which will have a very hard time getting through the Senate," Orfield says.

The most recent pro-labor bill sent by the House to the Senate was the Employee Free Choice Act. It would have allowed the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union in a workplace if a majority of workers signed a card asking for union representation. There would not have to be an election.

The House passed that bill by 241-185 on March 1. But when it came up for a vote on the Senate floor on June 26, Democrats were able to get only 51 votes, short of the 60 needed to shut off debate and go to a vote.

The Supreme Court's decision in the Ledbetter case made it much easier for employers to defend against Title VII workplace-discrimination litigation -- specifically when the decisions about salary, raises and other pay-related issues were made a long time ago.

Ledbetter, a manager at a Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., who worked at the plant from 1979 to 1998, brought the case in 1999. She claimed she was paid 15 percent to 40 percent less than male peers.

The House Education and Labor Committee passed the bill by a party-line vote of 25-20 on June 27.

In a letter to Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., on June 27, a coalition of business groups wrote that the bill "virtually eliminates any time limitations for claims of employment discrimination. In doing so, the legislation invites stale claims and frivolous litigation when unwarranted litigation is already an issue under current discrimination laws."

"In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it found reasonable cause in only 5.3 percent of the over 75,000 charges of discrimination that it received in FY 2006 and found absolutely no cause for discrimination in over 60 percent of the charges (amounting to 45,500 "no cause" charges)," the group wrote.