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Senate moves toward vote on pay equity bill

A top item on the Democratic agenda, legislation making it easier to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace, progressed in the Senate Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A top item on the Democratic agenda, legislation making it easier to challenge pay discrimination in the workplace, progressed in the Senate Thursday.

But with Republicans demanding changes, it is unlikely to be ready for new President Barack Obama's signature when he takes office next week.

The Senate voted 72-23 to proceed to the so-called Lilly Ledbetter bill that would reverse a Supreme Court ruling that put time limits on when a person can seek redress for wage discrimination. The bill, which faced a veto threat from President George W. Bush, has the strong backing of Obama, and is likely to be the groundbreaking pro-worker rights act of his young administration.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chief sponsor in the Senate, still held out hope in a speech Wednesday that the bill could be the first that Obama signs into law after he takes office.

But Senate Republicans, while stressing they were not filibustering the legislation, were intent on getting more time to deliberate on the bill they said would lead to more lawsuits and be a windfall for trial lawyers.

Prospects now are for a final vote in about a week, and any changes would require further negotiations with the House, which approved the measure last week on a 247-171 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressed frustration over GOP tactics of erecting parliamentary roadblocks and delaying final votes. "It's a waste of time, our country's time," he said in urging Republicans to reduce their use of filibusters.

Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. factory in Alabama who sued the company over discrimination when she learned — shortly before retiring after a 19-year career — that she earned less than her male peers. A jury ruled in her favor, but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote in May, 2007, threw out her complaint, saying she had failed to sue within the 180-day deadline after a discriminatory pay decision was made.

The legislation would define the statute of limitations as 180 days after issuance of the last discriminatory paycheck, in effect extending the deadline every time a person is paid.

The court decision, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., "set us back 40 years in the fight for equal opportunity in the workplace."

"This decision does not reflect the reality of the workplace," Mikulski said. "You can talk about anything in the workplace. Often, politics are discussed in the lunchroom; religion is talked about at the computer; sex is often discussed at the water cooler; but salary is never discussed."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., insisted his party was not filibustering but did want time to change a bill most Republicans say goes too far in weakening the statute of limitations.

"Its primary beneficiaries are lawyers who want to squeeze a major settlement out of every company that fears the expense or the publicity of going to court," he said.

One amendment expected to be offered by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and others would start the 180-day statute of limitations clock when a person learns of, or should have known of, the act of discrimination.

Hutchison said businesses are concerned about "the catastrophic increase in legal costs resulting from an undisciplined system that allows liability to continue indefinitely."

The House last week also passed a companion pay equity bill that puts gender-based discrimination on an equal footing with other forms of discrimination in seeking damages, and it puts the burden on employers to prove that wage disparities are job-related and not sex-based. The Senate has yet to take up that bill.