By ROBERT PEAR
Published: January 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — The House voted on Friday to give women powerful new tools to challenge sex discrimination by employers who pay women less than men for the same or substantially similar work.
The action shows how Congress, working with President-elect Barack Obama, intends to make a swift, sharp break with civil rights policies of the Bush administration.
“In the first week of the new Congress, this is the legislation we are putting forward: pay equity, fairness to women in the workplace,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California. “These are our priorities. This Congress has heard the message of change in the election.”
The House passed two related bills on Friday. One, approved 247 to 171, would give workers more time to file lawsuits claiming job discrimination.
The bill would overturn a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that enforced a strict 180-day deadline, thwarting a lawsuit by Lilly M. Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. Three Republicans voted for the bill.
The other bill — passed 256 to 163, with support from 10 Republicans — would make it easier for women to prove violations of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which generally requires equal pay for equal work.
President Bush threatened to veto both bills, saying they would “invite a surge of litigation” and “impose a tremendous burden on employers.” Congress will not give him the opportunity.
Mr. Obama is eager to sign the bills, and it appears he will be able to do so. Supporters of the legislation said they believed they could come up with the 60 votes needed to ensure passage in the Senate, after two vacant seats are filled.
The United States Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers opposed the bills. Jeri G. Kubicki, a vice president of the manufacturers group, said the bills would “open the floodgates to unwarranted litigation against employers at a time when businesses are struggling to retain and create jobs.”
In the Ledbetter case, a jury found that Goodyear had paid her less than men, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, threw out her complaint. It said she should have filed her claim within 180 days of “the alleged unlawful employment practice,” the initial decision to pay her less than men performing similar work.
“The Ledbetter decision is unacceptable and must not stand,” said Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. Under the decision, Mr. Miller said, employers can get away with years of pay discrimination “if they hide it for the first 180 days.”
The bill would relax the statute of limitations, making clear that each new paycheck violates the law if it results “in whole or in part” from a discriminatory pay decision made in the past.
Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, the senior Republican on the committee, said: “This bill would allow an employee to bring a claim against an employer decades after the alleged initial act of discrimination occurred. Trial lawyers, you can be sure, are salivating at this very prospect.”
Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said that while women had made gains since passage of the Equal Pay Act, pay disparities persisted.
“The Paycheck Fairness Act closes numerous loopholes that have enabled employers to evade liability,” said Ms. DeLauro, the chief sponsor of that bill. “It stiffens penalties for employers who discriminate based on gender. And it protects employees from retaliation for sharing salary information.”
Under the 1963 law, an employer can justify paying women less than men if it shows that the disparity is based on any factor other than sex. Employers have successfully used this defense in many cases, arguing that unequal pay was justified by the education, training or experience of male employees.
Some courts have also held that a company can legally pay men more than women because of “market forces” or the higher salaries that men received in previous jobs. Democrats said those factors — market forces and prior salaries — were themselves sometimes tainted by discrimination.
The bill would make it harder for employers to use such defenses. Employers would have to show that the pay disparity was based on “a bona fide factor” other than sex, and that the factor was “consistent with business necessity.”
The bill would also allow women to obtain compensatory and punitive damages from employers who violated the equal pay law.
The White House said the bill would allow “unlimited compensatory and punitive damages, even when a disparity in pay was unintentional.” Under the new standard, it continued, “judges and juries would supplant the free market system” in determining wages.