Thursday, January 29, 2009

Obama Signs First Piece of Legislation Into Law

Lilly Ledbetter Act Makes It Easier for Workers to Sue for Pay Discrimination

By Debbi Wilgoren, Rich Leiby and DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 29, 2009; 2:49 PM

President Obama this morning signed a law that expands the time frame in which workers can sue for discrimination they have experienced based on gender, race, national origin or religion.

The legislation -- the first Obama has signed since becoming president nine days ago -- makes clear that workers may bring a lawsuit for up to six months after they receive any paycheck that they allege is discriminatory. It is named for Lilly Ledbetter, who after years as a manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber discovered she was being paid less than her male counterparts. She filed suit and won a jury verdict in 2003. But the lawsuit was deemed invalid because it wasn't filed within six months of when the discrimination -- unknown to Ledbetter at the time -- began.

Ledbetter, now 70, became an icon for Obama during his campaign for the White House and was escorted into the East Room by the president this morning for the signing ceremony. Obama led a prolonged round of applause for her as they stood together at the podium before a room full of legislators and fair-pay advocates.

"We are upholding one of this nation's first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness," Obama said before signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which effectively nullifies the 2007 Supreme Court decision.

"While this bill bears her name, Lilly knows this story isn't just about her," Obama said. "It's the story of women across this country still earning just 78 cents for every dollar men earn -- women of color even less --which means that today, in the year 2009, countless women are still losing thousands of dollars in salary, income and retirement savings over the course of a lifetime."

The bill will not allow Ledbetter to claim lost wages or the $360,000 she was awarded by a U.S. District Court. But at a reception in the State Dining Room hosted by first lady Michelle Obama after the signing, Ledbetter said she was "honored and humbled" by her role in its creation and passage.

"Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of. In fact, I will never see a cent from my case," she said. "But with the president's signature today, I have an even richer reward" -- that future generations of women will have a better chance at fair pay.

"That's what makes this fight worth fighting," said Ledbetter, of Jacksonville, Ala. "That's what made this fight one we had to win."

Michelle Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has said she will focus on work-family balance as first lady, praised Ledbetter's courage in waging her 10-year legal battle. "She knew unfairness when she saw it, and was willing to do something about it because it was the right thing to do -- plain and simple," Obama said.

The law is an early emblem of the more liberal tilt the federal government is likely to take now that Democrats control both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Among those enthusiastically looking on as the bill was signed were the first lady; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Obama praised for leading passage of the bill in the House; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose historic bid to become the first U.S. female president ended when Obama secured the Democratic nomination; Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine); and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Snowe, the lead Republican sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said in a statement its passage "recognized an issue that is fundamental to America -- to the way we see ourselves . . . to the standards by which our country abides: equality, fairness, and justice."

Ledbetter endorsed Obama's candidacy and spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. She was one of 16 guests on the train that carried the president-elect from Philadelphia to Washington before his swearing-in. Hours after becoming president, Obama danced with her at the Neighborhood Ball.

Obama gave her one of the pens he used to sign the bill as a keepsake. "This one's for Lilly," he said.

Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Gadsden, Ala., for 19 years. Several months before she retired in 1998 as an area manager, Ledbetter found an anonymous note in her mailbox at work, tipping her off that she was being paid less than the men who held the same job. That year, she filed an EEOC complaint and received a letter from the commission saying that she had grounds to sue.

She won a jury verdict in U.S. district court in 2003, but Goodyear appealed. Two years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in a ruling that departed from those of nine other federal appellate courts, sided with Goodyear, saying Ledbetter's lawsuit was filed years too late.

She took the case to the Supreme Court, which upheld the appellate court's view in a 5 to 4 opinion written by its newest member, Justice Samuel A. Alito, a Bush appointee. At the time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Clinton, gave a rare oral dissent, saying she hoped Congress would reverse what the court had done.

The House passed a bill that year to do just that. But Senate Republicans blocked the legislation last spring on a close procedural vote.

Obama said he was signing the bill this morning not only in honor of Ledbetter, "but in honor of those who came before her. Women like my grandmother who worked in a bank all her life, and even after she hit that glass ceiling, kept getting up and giving her best every day. . . .

"And I sign this bill for my daughters, and all those who will come after us," Obama added, "because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined."

Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

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