by Faith Childs

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed two bills of importance to women. The Paycheck Fairness Act requires employers to pay equal wages to men and women who perform the same job unless there is a rational reason for the pay disparity. Also passed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturns the 2007 Supreme Court decision Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (550 U.S. 618). In the year since that decision, lower courts around the country have been busy deepening its effect, turning away suits charging discrimination based on sex, race and disability.

In the Ledbetter decision Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, disallowed Lilly Ledbetter’s claim of sex discrimination on the grounds that Ms. Ledbetter, who was one of the few women in a position held mostly by men, waited too long to begin her action against Goodyear. In short, the court required those who have been victims of employment discrimination to file a charge the moment such discriminatory acts occur, or at least within 180 days of the occurrence of such discrimination.  The court reasoned that employers should have some expectation of  protection from bad decisions made in the past.

By demanding that employees file charges for “discrete acts” that occur within an appropriate statutory period, the decision made the task of challenging long-term effect of an employer’s unequal pay and promotion practices nearly impossible.  As Justice Ruth Ginsberg noted in her dissent, employees–particularly those who are victims of discriminatory acts–may not want to call attention to themselves by repeatedly filing charges against an employer. She noted that acts of discrimination are often cumulative in their impact, and that the majority opinion ignored “real-world employment practices.”

The bill named for Ledbetter would reverse the Court's decision; the Paycheck Fairness Act would establish explicit ground rules for the future.

Senate passage of these bills would strengthen all employees’ ability to challenge workplace discrimination.

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