CHN: House Passes Bills Addressing Discrimination in the Workplace
The Equal Pay Act (EPA) passed in 1963, making it illegal for employers to pay different wages to men and women doing essentially the same work. At the time of passage women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by men doing comparable work. Forty-five years later, due in part to passage of the EPA, the wage gap has narrowed with women earning 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, but equal pay still has not been achieved.
On January 9, the House passed two bills important to restoring fairness for women workers. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (H.R. 11) and The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 12) passed mostly along party lines by votes of 247-171 and 256-164 with only three Republicans voting for H.R. 11 and 10 for H.R. 12.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named after the woman who lost a 2007 Supreme Court ruling in her suit against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. The Court ruled 5-4 against Ledbetter in her sex-discrimination suit against the Goodyear Company who for nearly two decades paid her less than men employees doing comparable work. The Court’s decision asserts that employees have only 180 days from when they first receive a discriminatorily reduced paycheck to challenge this discrimination. However, because pay information is confidential employees are often not aware of discrimination. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reverses the Court’s decision and restores the law to its interpretation prior to the ruling by allowing the 180 day clock to reset each time compensation is paid. H.R. 11 allows the employee to collect back pay for two years prior to filing a complaint. Employees would still be required to file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the last discriminatory paycheck, policy or action.
The Paycheck Fairness Act makes improvements in the 1963 Equal Pay Act by toughening remedies available for sex-based pay discrimination. The EPA allows women to recover only unpaid wages and an equal amount in damages, but not compensatory damages (based on pain and suffering) or punitive damages (based on malice or reckless indifference by the employer to the employee’s rights). The Paycheck Fairness Act would put sex-based discrimination on par with discrimination based on race or national origin by allowing victims of sex-based discrimination to receive compensatory and punitive damages. H.R. 12 puts the burden on the employer to prove that there is a good reason for pay inequity if it exists. Another important provision in the bill prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who inquires about, discusses, or discloses the wages of the employee or another employee in response to a complaint or charge.
The House first passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2007, but the bill fell three votes short in the Senate in 2008. On January 15, the Senate voted to proceed with debate on the bill with a vote on final passage likely to occur next week. The Senate has not scheduled a debate on H.R. 12, which has less support in the Senate.
For more information on each of the bills, see the National Women’s Law Center website at: http://www.nwlc.org/fairpay/.