By  on January 26, 2009

WASHINGTON — The House is expected to pass a bill this week aimed at making it easier for victims of pay discrimination to file lawsuits against employers, paving the way for President Obama to sign the first bill of his presidency.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would reverse a Supreme Court decision and allow employees to sue as long as they filed a lawsuit within 180 days of any paycheck deemed discriminatory. 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 $300,000 awarded to her by a lower court for pay discrimination over more than 20 years at Goodyear.

“This bill is a victory for American workers,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Today, Republicans and Democrats united around ensuring that hardworking individuals across this country should be paid fairly and that they will have a fair shot to fight back when they are not.”

The symbolism of a wage-discrimination bill marking the first of Obama’s tenure in the White House was not lost on labor groups that see it as a critical element of their agenda and a possible prelude to a much larger battle in Congress over legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize a union.

“We are in a new era now, where the concerns of working people are at the front and center of the administration,” said Mark Levinson, chief economist at UNITE HERE, the main apparel and textile union that also represents hotel and restaurant employees. “It doesn’t mean we will get everything we want or win all of our battles, but the politics have changed in a major way, and this is an example.”

The business community, concerned the act would open the floodgates to legal action against employers, lobbied vigorously against it.

Rob Green, vice president of government and political affairs at the National Retail Federation, said the bill is much more overarching than the Supreme Court decision in the Ledbetter case.

“The way the legislation is structured there is a likelihood that it could be years or decades before discrimination cases are filed [by one employee], and there is a great deal more exposure for employers of all types when you have the potential for open-ended opportunities for lawsuits regardless of their merit,” Green said.

The House passed the bill earlier this month but combined it with a second wage-discrimination bill before sending it to the Senate. The Senate narrowed the scope of the bill it passed on Thursday night to just the Ledbetter language, and now the House must pass it again.

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