By  on January 28, 2009

WASHINGTON — The first bill that President Obama is expected to sign into law will make it easier for victims of pay discrimination to file lawsuits against employers.

The House on Tuesday voted 250 to 177 to give final legislative approval to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reverses a U.S. Supreme Court decision and allows employees to sue as long as they file within 180 days of any paycheck deemed discriminatory. The Senate passed the legislation last week.

The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in a case involving Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire & Co. employee, that alleged victims of wage discrimination must file a complaint within 180 days of their first paycheck or lose the right to sue. As a result, Ledbetter lost $360,000 awarded to her by a lower court because of pay bias during more than 20 years at Goodyear.

Republicans and many business trade groups, such as the National Retail Federation, lobbied against the bill, arguing it would open the floodgates to legal action against employers and give individual workers the right to sue over decades-old wage discrimination challenges.

Labor groups hailed the bill’s passage. But most expect a defining moment will come when Congress takes up the Employee Free Choice Act, possibly in February, which would make it easier for workers to organize a union by allowing them to fill out workplace sign cards.

The majority sign-up process is permitted under current law, but only if the employer allows it.

That bill has pitted the broad business community against labor and workers’ rights groups, both of which have invested millions of dollars in a lobbying and public relations battle.

“In passing this bill, we recognize that sexism and discrimination can still cheat women out of equal pay for equal work,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said during floor debate.

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