Senate Passes Wage-Discrimination Bill

Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the bill is named, found a large salary gap at work.
Lilly Ledbetter, for whom the bill is named, found a large salary gap at work. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009

A wage-discrimination bill that narrowly failed less than a year ago moved closer to becoming law last night, when the Senate passed the legislation and sent it back to the House for final consideration.

The measure, approved 61 to 36, would overturn a Supreme Court decision to make it easier for women to sue employers for pay inequity, regardless of when the discrepancies took place. It may become the first legislation signed by President Obama, who campaigned in favor of it.

The bill, dubbed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was introduced after a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 rejected a $360,000 award in back pay to Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman who worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Ledbetter had discovered a large gap between her salary and that of her male colleagues, stretching back years.

The discrepancy cost her lost wages and also lowered her retirement earnings because her Social Security and 401(k) contributions were based on her salary. But the court ruled that Ledbetter's case was not allowed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act because the statute of limitations on claims was 180 days after the alleged discrimination took place.

The bill would greatly ease the statute-of-limitations requirements -- too much so, said Republican opponents, who warned that civil courts would be clogged with frivolous lawsuits.

Ledbetter's case became a cause celebre for women's groups and for Democrats, who pointed to the bill as the type of measure that would move briskly if the party won the White House and a larger Senate margin. When similar legislation came before the Senate last April 23, it failed by two votes.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a main sponsor, noted that all 16 female senators voted in favor of the measure last night. "We've had an enormous victory," she declared.

Ledbetter, who appeared alongside Mikulski after the vote, said that she spoke to Obama and that "he has assured me that he will see me in the White House, hopefully in just a few days."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company