By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
As Senate leaders yesterday observed Equal Pay Day, the White House threatened to veto a bill that would make it easier for victims of discrimination to sue their employers over unequal pay.
The measure, which is scheduled for a vote today in the Senate, aims to reverse a controversial Supreme Court decision from last spring. That ruling held that Lilly Ledbetter, the lone female supervisor at an Alabama tire plant, could not sue her employer over unequal pay because the alleged discrimination that cut her wages occurred years before she filed a complaint.
The House approved the bill, dubbed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, last summer. Senate leaders are now bringing it to the floor in part to acknowledge Equal Pay Day, the date on which the average woman's wages catch up to what the average man earned during the previous year. The day was established in 1996 by civil rights advocates to call attention to a persistent wage gap that leaves women earning 77 cents on average for every dollar earned by men.
But Democrats also are hoping to set up a potent campaign issue for the general election. In a 2007 CBS/New York Times poll, nearly one in four female voters listed "equal pay for equal work" or "workplace equality" as the most important problem facing American women. Both Democratic presidential candidates are planning to take a rare break from the campaign trail to come to Washington and cast their votes in support of the Ledbetter bill.
Most Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the legislation, taking the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups, which are lobbying hard to defeat the measure. The presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has yet to state his position.
The White House, however, has been quite clear. Yesterday, officials reasserted a veto threat issued in July, saying that the Ledbetter ruling was fair and that the bill "far exceeds the stated purpose of undoing the Court's decision."
At issue is how to apply the statue of limitations for claims made under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law requires that a suit be filed within 180 days after an unlawful employment practice occurs. Before the Ledbetter ruling, some courts judged that the clock on pay discrimination started ticking afresh with each paycheck that had been unfairly reduced.
Ledbetter argued that she had been discriminated against throughout her career, receiving smaller raises than the men, and that each paycheck was a new violation. But the Supreme Court said victims must complain within 180 days of a specific event -- such as a denied raise or promotion -- or lose the right to sue.
"The court said I should have filed within six months of the original act, even though I didn't know and didn't have any evidence to complain about," Ledbetter said this week. "My case set a new and dangerous precedent: If discrimination isn't challenged within six months, a company can pay a woman less than a man for the rest of her career."
To reverse the ruling, the Ledbetter bill pending in Congress would state that the clock restarts with each discriminatory paycheck.
In the statement issued yesterday, the White House said the measure "effectively eliminates any time requirement for filing a claim involving compensation discrimination," allowing claims that arise from decisions long past to be taken to court. The measure "would serve to impede justice and undermine the important goal of having allegations of discrimination expeditiously resolved," the White House said.
Civil rights advocates disagreed, saying the bill is a needed remedy for a ruling that is already having far-reaching and unexpected effects, limiting access to the courts by female athletes seeking to compete in a male-dominated sport, disabled people seeking to enforce fair housing laws and workers pressing claims of age discrimination, as well as women who are paid less than their male co-workers, according to a survey of federal court cases.
"The impact of this decision was enormous," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a national association of civil rights, women's and consumer organizations, which conducted the survey. "It's not just American workers who are affected, but those seeking redress to remedy all kinds of discriminatory actions."