Equal pay bill clears U.S. Senate

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By Carol A. Clark

A significant breakthrough in the equal pay fight Thursday is another sign that the country is getting back on track. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and 60 of his colleagues approved legislation Thursday that will effectively overturn a Supreme Court decision that has limited American worker's abilities to seek recourse on pay discrimination.

The Fair Pay Restoration Act bill now heads to President Barack Obama for signature.

"We must work to ensure that the courts remain a source of redress for employees, many of whom are fighting much larger and better financed employers," Bingaman said in a press release. "Employees should not face unreasonable obstacles in their efforts to pursue a discrimination claim and to seek appropriate remedies."

Bingaman explained that by placing undue burdens on employees to quickly prove discrimination, the decision has negatively altered the use of the courts as a remedy to discriminatory conduct by employers.

Employers who are more successful at hampering their employee's efforts to prove discrimination and who cause delay are currently afforded more protection than those employers who treat their employees justly under the law, he added.

"The American judicial system is the envy of the world," Bingaman said. "In times of great national strife, the courts have been a bastion of reason and justice. The Fair Pay Restoration Act seeks to restore this equity and to ensure that employees and employers have full and equal access to the courts."

Los Alamos County Councilor Sharon Stover is pleased the bill passed the Senate. "I think it's important that if someone believes they are being discriminated against regarding their pay that there be a venue in which to pursue their case," she said. "This bill addresses many of the obstacles that have previously hampered the process and that's a good thing. I want to thank Sen. Bingaman for his efforts on behalf of all workers in the United States."

The Fair Pay Restoration Act (S. 1843) was introduced to address the September 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which severely limited the ability of victims of pay discrimination to sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Court ruled 5-4 that Lilly Ledbetter could receive no back pay or damages from her employer even though a jury found that she was unfairly paid less than her male colleagues for many years, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The Court said that Ledbetter had filed her discrimination complaint too late, calculating the beginning of the 180-day deadline way back when Goodyear first started paying Ledbetter less than the male supervisors, even though she continued to receive discriminatory paychecks for years and years afterward.

Since inquiring about the salaries and raises of other employees is often strongly discouraged by employers, the Court's ruling that workers must uncover pay discrimination within 180 days of the first discrepancy creates a virtual impossibility.

For all intents and purposes, the ruling sanctioned months if not years of lower pay for women and other affected workers, according to the Institute. The decision further encourages employers who are paying their employees unfairly to cover up their actions in the first 180 days, and then they will be free to discriminate openly after this 180 day deadline for filing a complaint has passed.

Dr. Janet M. Cramer, (505) 277-1989/277-3854 director of Women Studies at the University of New Mexico said this morning that

The Fair Pay Restoration Act (S. 1843), like its counterpart passed by the House, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831) eliminates these unreasonable time limits, allowing victims of pay discrimination to seek back pay and damages when they become aware of the injustice.

A fact sheet researched by the Institute for Women's Policy Research shows the gender wage gap for 2007.

The ratio of the annual averages of women’s and men’s median annual earnings was 77.8 for full-time workers in 2007, up from 76.9 in 2006. This means the gender wage gap is now 22.2 percent. This is the highest earnings ratio ever, surpassing the previous high of 77.0 in 2005, according to the institute.

The annual earnings figure reflects gender differences in both hourly wages and the number of hours worked each year. If part-time and part-year workers were included, the ratio would be much lower, as women are more likely than men to work reduced schedules in order to manage child-rearing and other care giving work.

Women’s real inflation-adjusted annual earnings rose 5.0 percent from 2006 to 2007, to $35,102, while men’s increased 3.8 percent, to $45,113.

The institute found this to be the first uptick in women’s annual earnings following four consecutive years of losses, and the first increase for men after three consecutive declines.

Progress in closing the gender earnings gap has slowed considerably since 1990, as measured by both data series.