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Equal pay bill sent to Obama

Union measure next for activists

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press / January 28, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Congress yesterday sent the White House what is expected to be the first legislation that President Obama will sign into law, a bill that makes it easier for women and others to sue for pay discrimination, even if the discrimination has prevailed for decades.

The bill has long been a favorite of Democrats and groups representing labor and women's rights.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would sign the bill Thursday during a public ceremony in the East Room.

The bill is a response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said a person must file a claim of discrimination within 180 days of a company's initial decision to pay a worker less than it pays another worker doing the same job - even if the employee is unaware that others are being paid more for the same job. Under the bill, every discriminatory paycheck would extend the statute of limitations for another 180 days.

The plaintiff in the case, Lilly Ledbetter, argued that she did not become aware of the pay discrepancy until near the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.

The Bush White House and Senate Republicans blocked the legislation in the last session of Congress, but Obama strongly supports it and the Democratic-controlled Congress moved it to the top of the agenda for the new session that opened this month.

The House yesterday passed it on a 250-to-177 vote.

"What a difference a new Congress and a president make," said Democratic Representative George Miller of California, sponsor of the bill and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Obama invited Ledbetter, for whom the bill is named, to accompany him on his train trip to the inauguration ceremony. After the Senate vote last week, the 70-year-old retiree said Obama "has assured me that he would see me in the White House when they sign the bill."

"By swiftly passing this legislation, Congress sets a new tone for employment rights," said ACLU legislative counsel Deborah J. Vagins. "The Ledbetter legislation restores a clear, bright-line rule for determining the timeliness of claims."

Having succeeded with the Ledbetter bill, labor rights advocates can turn to tougher issues, including a controversial measure, expected to come up later this year, that would take away a company's right to demand a secret ballot when workers are deciding whether to join a union.

The Ledbetter bill focuses on pay and other workplace discrimination against women: The Census Bureau last year estimated that women still only receive about 78 cents for every dollar that men are paid for doing equivalent jobs. But the measure, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also applies to discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin, disability, and age.

Supporters argued that the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision throwing out Ledbetter's claim was unrealistic for most work environments in which employees are unaware of, or even barred from talking about, the salaries of their co-workers.

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