When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that longtime Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. employee Lilly Ledbetter had filed her gender pay-discrimination claim too late for redress, the case became an instant rallying point for unions and civil rights advocates.
On Friday, the House passed legislation that would dramatically increase the window of time during which employees can file claims for pay disparities. In Ledbetter's case, the Supreme Court ruled that a worker must file claims of wage discrimination within 180 days after the disparity in pay began. The Lilly Ledbetter Act would start the clock from the time a worker learns of the disparity; in Ledbetter's case, that was decades after the disparity began.
Members also approved a second labor and employment bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would allow workers claiming wage discrimination to seek punitive damages and make it easier to expand the pool of plaintiffs in class action cases.
California Democrat Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, hailed the vote as "a historic step forward in the fight for equal rights for women." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized the measures as "serious civil rights legislation" and, during a Thursday conference call with reporters, hailed Ledbetter as "our heroine."
Ledbetter has become an outspoken advocate for broadening the statute of limitations in discrimination cases. She has been invited by President-elect Barack Obama to join him as he travels by train to his Jan. 20 inauguration.
But the bills, both previously passed by the House, face significant opposition in the business community. And they are expected to find a much rockier road to approval in the Senate — though Republicans say they see more room for compromise on the Ledbetter measure.
"We hope to get to Lilly Ledbetter in the next week or so," says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "But, as always, it depends on how much cooperation we get from Republicans."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched an all-out offensive against the measures, saying they would be a boon to trial lawyers and undermine the rights of employers.
"The bottom line for the business community is that we entirely agree in creating fair play in the workplace," says chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder. "But we oppose opening up the process to litigation that will hurt small businesses."
A Galvanizing Pay Discrimination Case
Ledbetter began her career at a Goodyear plant in Alabama in 1979. After taking early retirement in 1998, she discovered that she had long been paid less than her male colleagues in similar salaried positions. Goodyear challenged Ledbetter's right to file a federal discrimination claim, asserting that she failed to file it — as required by law — within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.
Though Ledbetter argued that she only discovered the pay discrepancy after the fact, the Supreme Court agreed with Goodyear. The Lilly Ledbetter Act would expand the statute of limitations to allow claims to be filed within 180 days of discovery of potential wage discrimination.
Supporters of the Ledbetter Act say the court's action has had a ripple effect on discrimination cases across the country. Judges are taking the Ledbetter decision to "absurd lengths," says Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, and it has had repercussions for cases ranging from housing discrimination to gender bias in schools.
Greenberger cited a recent New York Times story that found that over the past 19 months, federal judges have cited the Ledbetter decision in more than 300 cases involving a range of alleged discriminatory practices. Greenberger said, for example, that judges relied on the Ledbetter ruling to reject claims by female wrestlers at a California university that they had been denied athletic opportunities, and to deny a wheelchair-bound man's claim that his apartment in Idaho did not meet federal accessibility requirements.
Though many in the business community oppose the Ledbetter measure as written, there has been discussion with Senate leaders about areas of compromise that would allow the bill to pass — from adjusting the window of time allowed for filing claims to working on the definition of a discriminatory act.
Punitive Damages A Tougher Sell
Business leaders and Republican senators, however, are less likely to come around on the Paycheck Fairness Act. Particularly distasteful to them: the bill's elimination of caps on punitive and compensatory damages, Fielder says.
"It's a giveaway to trial lawyers," he said. "It would erode an employer's defense for legitimate pay disparities."
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the bill's Senate sponsor, has argued that the tougher penalties are needed to prevent pay discrimination. The bill would also bar employers from punishing employees who share salary information with each other.
Supporters of the Ledbetter measure had hoped to see it on Obama's desk the day he takes office. That is looking to be difficult, given the current Senate schedule and the fact that the Democrats may not have enough members around for a vote. Sen. Joe Biden is expected to be traveling in the Mideast next week, and the status of senators-in-waiting Roland Burris and Al Franken remains, for now, in limbo.
As for Ledbetter, she says her case is over. "I will never receive any pay I deserve from Goodyear," she said Thursday. "But Congress can make sure it doesn't happen again."