House: Working women may sue for discrimination

Washington_The House has passed legislation to assure that employers live up to their four-decade-old legal promise to provide equal pay for equal work.

Democrats led lawmakers in approving a bill making clear that women who are victims of gender-based discrimination can sue for compensatory and punitive damage.

The chamber was also voting on a bill in response to a Supreme Court decision that workers must file a discrimination claim within 180 days of a pay violation. Supporters of changing the law said many workers don't find out about wage disparities for years.

The two bills, coming in the first week of the new Congress, attest to the worker rights agenda of the Democratic-led Congress and the incoming Democratic president, Barack Obama.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Democratic-led House took up two wage discrimination bills Friday, moving quickly to affirm its worker rights credentials as labor ally Barack Obama prepares to move into the White House.

Both bills, aimed at assuring that women's rights to equal pay are adhered to, passed the House in the last session of Congress but couldn't clear the Senate and veto threats from the White House. Now, with Democrats enjoying larger majorities in both chambers and a Democrat becoming president, the bills' prospects are brighter.

"Equal pay is an issue of fundamental fairness," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "But as families grapple with difficult economic times, equal pay for equal work is often about daily survival for millions of families."

Republican opponents saw the measures, introduced in the first week of the new Congress, as an incentive for people to file lawsuits that will benefit trial lawyers. It's "little more than an earmark for the trial bar," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it more difficult to sue over past pay discrimination. The other bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, would strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act that requires equal pay for equal work.

Senate Democrats last April fell three votes short of stopping a GOP-led filibuster of the Ledbetter bill. Obama made a rare diversion from the campaign trail to speak on the Senate floor in support of the bill. His rival at the time, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., also interrupted her campaign to return to the Senate for the vote.

The Senate plans to take up the Ledbetter legislation next week. Clinton is introducing a companion to the paycheck fairness bill in the Senate, but no time has been set for floor debate.

The early foray into labor rights issues is a prelude to what could be the most controversial bill that Congress tackles in the first year of the Obama administration - legislation to take away the right of employers to demand secret-ballot elections by workers before unions could be recognized.

Both labor groups and the business groups who vehemently oppose it say the Employee Free Choice Act could tip the balance of power in labor efforts to organize workplaces.

Business groups say it is an affront to democratic principles. Unions say companies have used secret ballots to intimidate pro-union workers and that the bill could help reverse the downward trend in union membership.

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

"This ruling just doesn't make sense in the real world," Ledbetter said in a telephone news conference Thursday. "In a lot of places you could get fired for asking your co-workers how much they are making."

The House bill would clarify that each paycheck resulting from discrimination would constitute a new violation, extending the 180-day statute of limitations.

In this period of economic turmoil, Congress must act to "ensure that women have all of the tools necessary to protect their rights and support themselves and their families," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Critics said the bill would allow people to file discrimination suits against employers for decades-old actions. But the liberal Alliance for Justice said the Supreme Court decision already had seriously impacted worker rights: It said that since the 2007 ruling federal and other courts had cited Ledbetter in 347 cases involving pay discrimination and other issues such as fair housing and the availability of sports programs for women.

The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act by making clear that victims of gender-based discrimination can sue for compensatory and punitive damages. It also puts the burden on employers to prove that any disparities in wages are job-related and not sex-based, and bars employers from retaliating against workers who discuss or disclose salary information with their co-workers.

Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president on labor issues, said the measure was a "giveaway to the trial lawyers" and would "make it difficult for an employer to defend any kind of pay disparity."

But Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who first introduced the legislation 12 years ago, said that, with women still earning only 78 cents for every dollar men earn in the same job, Congress has to strengthen the law. "It is our moment to fight for economic freedom," she said. "To do anything less would be to shortchange women and their families everywhere."

The Ledbetter bill is H.R. 11. The Paycheck Fairness Act is H.R. 12.

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Jim Abrams, AP Writer, Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.