On January 29th, President Obama signed his first bill into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This reverses a 2007 Supreme Court decision which said that a pay discrimination claim must be filed within 180 days of the first offense. The bill is named after a woman who didn’t find out until she had worked at Goodyear for 19 years that she was making less than all the other supervisors even though she had more experience. A jury ruled in her favor but the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed the ruling, despite decades of legal precedent which supported Ledbetter’s case.
Foes of the bill (mainly Republicans and business leaders–surprise!) maintain that it will cause more lawsuits, make businesses hesitant to hire women and exacerbate the recession. What they are really saying is that businesses should be allowed to pay women less money for the same job their male counterparts are doing. And that their business models depend on it. That’s it, pure and simple.
If a business refuses to hire women because it doesn’t want to have to pay them the same as men, is that not out-and-out discrimination? And in case anyone thinks I’m just another whining feminist, this new law, which updates the 1964 Civil Rights Act, covers discrimination not only by gender but also by race, national origin, religion, age and disabilities.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long contended that each new instance of discrimination (i.e., each new paycheck that has the lower pay on it) triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations. Obama has incorporated this standard into the new law. This only makes sense, because it could take years before a person discovers the pay others are receiving. It’s not like that information is easy to come by. In our culture, it’s considered bad form to ask people what they make, and many businesses caution their employees to not share this information or they will be fired.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was wrong on two counts: it ignored legal precedent and it upheld discrimination. Let’s hope that it will soon get the message that the new administration holds it to higher standards than did the Bush administration (which has become infamous for undermining the rights of its citizens).