There’s been a lot of fuss about the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Senate Republicans successfully threatened to filibuster yesterday. And since Senate members keep saying the legislation would eliminate any statute of limitations on when employees could file for redress–and the news media keeps liberally quoting without immediately correcting them–a few points bear mentioning.
First off: Ledbetter v. Goodyear didn’t create the requirement that an employee lodge charges within 180 days after experiencing wage discrimination. Congress did, under title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which declared a worker has to file a discrimination complaint within 180 days of the alleged unlawful practice. Before the Court ruled on Ledbetter last May, every time a worker received a new paycheck, that 180-day clock was restarted–because every unequal paycheck was considered a new illegal practice. What the Court did do was decide, instead, that the 180-day statute of limitation starts to run out from the moment the original, discriminatory pay decision was made. In other words: it’s okay for employers to pay workers at unequal rates, so long as they can get away with it for at least 180 days.
The Ledbetter Pay Act wasn’t “designed to create a massive amount of new litigation,” as Sen. McConnell would have it. What it does is restore the pre-Ledbetter interpretation used by nine Federal circuit courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Far from allowing victims to sue for unlimited amounts of back pay, the law would limit claims filed to a 2-year maximum. So even if the Senate could muster the support to pass the bill, much less override Bush’s threatened veto, the best someone who’d worked for nearly 20 years at a discriminatory rate–like Lilly Ledbetter–could hope for would be two years’ redress. And maybe some sense of restored justice.