WASHINGTON — The Senate approved landmark worker rights legislation on Thursday that will make it easier for those who think they've endured pay discrimination to seek legal help. The vote was 61-36.
The House of Representatives approved a similar measure on January 9, three days after the 111th Congress convened. Because the Senate made modest changes in the House version, the House must pass it again. Once it does, as is assured, this will be one of the first bills that President Barack Obama signs into law.
This culminates a two-year effort, mostly by Democrats, that made onetime tire plant supervisor Lilly Ledbetter a civil rights icon and a political star.
The legislation overrides a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee in Gadsden, Ala., couldn't sue her employer for pay discrimination because she didn't file suit within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.
"It set us back 40 years in our fight for equal opportunity in the workplace," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
For women such as Sharon Davis of Rhode Island, who filed a pay equity claim against her employer, the new law would allow her to seek back pay dating back to 2006, instead of only the six months before she filed in July 2008.
As director of administrative services at the University of Connecticut, Davis helped prepare her department's budget and earned roughly 60 percent of the pay given to a male colleague with an equal title in her department.
When that colleague became Davis' interim boss in 2004, he approved her pay raise. It was halted, however, Davis said, because the university wanted a permanent successor for the interim boss. That new boss eventually "re-evaluated" Davis' position by reassigning some of her duties to other directors.
"That ended my ability to get equity," Davis said. "Personnel said 'since your duties have changed, we don't think we need to give you more money.'"
Davis, 61, filed a pay inequity claim based on gender and race with the university's office of diversity and equity in July 2008. She made similar filings with other agencies, but there's been no final resolution.
University of Connecticut spokeswoman Karen Grava said the school believes in equal pay, but doesn't comment on personnel matters or pending litigation.
Ledbetter roamed the Capitol's halls on Thursday, explaining to lawmakers and reporters that she was unaware of the pay disparity during most of the 19 years she worked at Goodyear.
"Pay levels were a big secret," she said, "but an anonymous person left a note in my mailbox at work one day, comparing my pay to that of three male managers — and that's when I knew I'd been the victim of pay discrimination."
She calmly recalled how "I started at a lower salary, and they gave me lower raises, over and over again." She sought help from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just before she retired in 1998, and the case wound through the courts.
After the Supreme Court ruled against her, three months later the House voted to override the decision, but a Senate filibuster stopped the effort.
Democrats turned Ledbetter into a political crusader. She told her story at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and last weekend, she accompanied Obama on his pre-inaugural train ride from Philadelphia to Washington.
The Senate debate on Thursday reflected society's debate. Civil and womens' rights advocates hailed the new Ledbetter legislation, but others said it will leave companies vulnerable to potentially crippling lawsuits even though discrimination is only a small factor in the so-called "gender gap" between male and female earners.
A 2007 report by the American Association of University Women found that when experience, training, education and other factors are weighed, discrimination accounts for only 5 percent of the earnings differential between male and female college graduates one year after graduation — and only 12 percent after ten years.
Nevertheless, Catherine Hill, an AAUW senior researcher who co-authored the study, said the Ledbetter law is needed.
"Most companies do the right thing anyway, but some will only do the right thing when they see laws on the books. And some companies have to be taken to court. Without (punitive) damages for discrimination, there really is no way to make them take the issue seriously," Hill said.
However, Warren Farrell, the San Francisco author of "Why Men Earn More," said that much of the pay gap can be explained by men choosing higher-paying professions that are in high demand and short supply, such as engineering, computer science, and information technology.
Men are also more likely to take dangerous, grimy jobs, such as collecting garbage and driving cabs, which typically pay more than other non-skilled labor.
The sight of Ledbetter, however, as well as the notion that this could be the year's major civil rights effort, helped forge a determined Senate majority.
As the day wore on, Ledbetter stood outside the chamber, explaining the bill's importance. "I will never see a cent from my case," she said, "but if this bill passes, I'll have an even richer reward because I'll known that my daughters and granddaughters, and your daughters and granddaughters will get a better deal."
Leading the chorus of Senate supporters was Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. "Doesn't that just give you chills?" she asked.
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