Thanks, President Obama: Acting against wage discrimination

If you’re looking for an example of the good work that can be done-and has been done—by a president, Democrats and a US Congress who care about equality, fairness and the general well-being of our democracy, there’s no better place to start than with the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

In fact, it was a great place to start for President Obama, too, as it was the first act he signed into law as President, on January 29, 2009.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act “struck a powerful blow for justice …for anyone who has been victimized by wage discrimination,” said the ACLU after the signing ceremony.

Let’s review. The law is named after Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear plant manager. After nearly 20 years working at a plant in Alabama, Ledbetter found out she was being paid far less than her 15 male counterparts and sued. Eventually, in 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled against her claim. In the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court held that “Ledbetter’s complaint was time barred, because the discriminatory decisions relating to pay had been made more than 180 days prior to the date she filed her charge.”  In effect, the Supreme Court said that time runs out on paycheck discrimination claims 180 after the first paycheck—even if a worker doesn’t find out about discriminatory practices until much later.

Workers’ rights groups, the ACLU and others were outraged by the Supreme Court decision, saying that, by enforcing an unreasonable statute of limitations, it denied many employees the right to challenge, in federal courts, illegal wage discrimination.

The Fair Pay Act rights that wrong. It amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new discriminatory paycheck.

According to the House Committee on Education and Labor,

Under the bill, every paycheck or other compensation resulting, in whole or in part, from an earlier discriminatory pay decision or other practice would constitute a violation of Title VII, which guards against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, and religion.

In other words, each discriminatory paycheck would restart the clock for filing a charge. As long as workers file their charges within 180 days (or 300 days in some jurisdictions) of a discriminatory paycheck, their charges will be considered timely.

Since the Ledbetter decision can impact pay discrimination claims under other statutes, the bill ensures that these simple reforms extend to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act to provide the same protections for victims of age and disability discrimination.

Before signing the bill, President Obama made clear that this bill [was] not just about Lilly Ledbetter or his two daughters or the countless women who are still facing unlawful pay disparities; it is also about the families who have to make ends meet with less because of wage discrimination:

Equal pay is by no means just a women’s issue — it’s a family issue. It’s about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition and child care; couples who wind up with less to retire on; households where one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves; that’s the difference between affording the mortgage — or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor bills — or not. And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month’s paycheck to simple and plain discrimination.

There is still much to be done to ensure fair pay for everyone. But the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was a big step forward—one that, like so many other progressive ideas, took effect over the objections of most Republicans and their allies in the corporate world. The law is an accomplishment of the Obama administration that progressives can and should hang onto as we endure a dark, frustrating period of continuing Republican obstructionism.