President Barack Obama and his allies in the Senate pushed Tuesday for a bill that calls for equal pay in the workplace, an election-year effort to merge political appeals to women with the No. 1 concern for all voters: the cash in their wallets on the heels of recession.
The device for this debate is legislation without hope for surviving the Senate this year, but with meaning for women workers making an average of 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Lilly Ledbetter, the face of the movement for workplace equality, is expected to speak alongside Senate Democrats and watch the vote from the Senate gallery. She has long complained that Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, won't say whether he supports the bill.
"To those of our colleagues who claim to be so concerned about the economy and the middle class, now is your chance to prove to your constituents that you really mean what you say," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as debate opened Tuesday. "The paycheck fairness act is not just about women, and it is not just about fairness. It is about the economy."
The debate has Republicans on the defensive, arguing that stabilizing the economy is the best way to ensure equal treatment and that the bill would unfairly burden employers.
"Of course Gov. Romney supports pay equity for women," said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. "In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been getting crushed in this anemic Obama economy, losing far more jobs than men."
Ledbetter sent a letter to Romney Tuesday in which she again challenged him to take a stand.
"Your campaign will say only that you support the concept of pay equity, but that you wouldn't change any laws to actually enforce it," she wrote. "That's like saying you're for staying dry but wouldn't use an umbrella in a rainstorm."
The response came amid a choreographed showdown on the Senate floor over the "Paycheck Fairness Act," a measure that aims to strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act's protections against paycheck inequities based on gender.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would require employers to prove that differences in pay are based on qualifications, education and other "bona fides" not related to gender. It also would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who ask about, discuss or disclose wages in response to a complaint or investigation. And it would make employers who violate sex discrimination laws liable for compensatory or punitive damages. Under the bill, the federal government would be exempt from punitive damages.
Proponents of the bill say it is the next step after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Obama signed into law in 2009. The law effectively overturned a Supreme Court decision that had strictly limited workers' ability to file lawsuits over pay inequity. Ledbetter said she didn't become aware of her own pay discrepancy until she neared the end of her 1979-1988 career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.
Near the end of her career, she received an anonymous tip that she was earning less than her male colleagues. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A jury initially awarded her more than $3 million in back pay and punitive damages, a sum that a judge later reduced to $300,000.
The Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in May 2007 threw out Ledbetter's complaint, saying she was required to bring suit within 180 days of the initial act of discrimination even though she was not aware at the time that she was receiving less than her male colleagues.
The Ledbetter Act clarified that the 180-day statute of limitations is extended every time an employer violates the law by issuing a paycheck or engages in other practices that discriminate. Therefore, if an employee alleges that she received a salary 20 years ago that was less than that of male co-workers because of discrimination, each new paycheck since that occurrence would be a new unlawful employment practice that resets the statute of limitations. The bill retains current limits on employer liability by restricting back pay awards to two years.