Pay Discrimination Bill Passes U.S. Senate

Workplace discrimination lawyers in Tennessee and across the U.S. were expectantly watching coverage or checking our Blackberries for live reports last week as Senate voted 61-36 for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. This important piece of legislation plugs a two-year hole in workplace pay discrimination law and Tennessee employees’ rights put there by a 2007 Supreme Court decision.

Nearly two years ago, workplace discrimination lawyers and their pay-discriminated clients received a blow from the Land’s highest court when the 5-4 ruling in the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. set new precedent for the already strict time limits for filing with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The decision against Ms. Ledbetter–a Goodyear supervisor in Alabama who worked hard and forgave the long-term sexual harassment she encountered until nearing her retirement she learned her male counterparts had been receiving 15-30% more pay than she had over her 19 years of employment–created a 180-day limitation for filing a discrimination lawsuit. This meant that Ledbetter, and other unequal pay discriminated persons like her, cannot take action against an discriminating employer for pay discrimination if they have been discriminated against for longer than six months after the fact–even though they still earning unequal pay and may have no way of knowing what their coworkers make. Most disheartening of all, the Court’s bizarre interpretation of the discrimination law’s six-month limit stripped Ledbetter of the back pay and compensation for mental anguish a lower court had awarded her for her gender-based pay discrimination and harassment.

Last year, working under the six-month limitation the Court had created, the EEOC (U.S. agency charged with ending employment discrimination) still received 24,826 gender-based discrimination complaints. Women in the U.S. still earn 77 cents to the dollar their male counterparts make, and minority women even less. And this is the case even after the passage of the Equal Pay Act sought to balance out the pay disparities between the genders and reduce discrimination 45 years ago.

Interesting, some Senators argued against the Ledbetter Bill (Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker both voted against it), suggesting that giving employees more time to discover they have been unequally promoted or unequally paid in the past (which usually means they are still receiving unequal paid at present) would increase employment lawsuits and the punitive damages awarded in pay discrimination lawsuits. Like the nursing home lobbyists and Tennessee legislators in last week’s Tennessee Law Blog, instead of forcing companies to clean up their act to avoid lawsuits for their abuses, the lobbyists and corporate lawyers want to keep the problems and do away with lawsuits. Of course, instead of facing lawsuits, employers guilty of discrimination could chose to admit their wrongs and pay backpay to correct their unequal and discriminatory workplace practices on their own. If the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 passes the House, perhaps they will. (UPDATE (1/27/09): House passes Lilly Ledbetter pay equity bill, President to sign.)

If you’ve discovered your Tennessee, Kentucky or Georgia employer has been paying you and other employees unequally based on your gender or race, my fellow Nashville-based workplace attorneys and I would like to offer our services. Give us a call at 1.800.705.2121 or complete our workplace discrimination form. Initial consultations with our employment lawyers are always free of charge.

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