Accessibility links

Obama Signs Labor Law as First Legislation

  • Michael Bowman

Barack Obama has signed the first legislation of his presidency: a bill that makes it easier for workers to sue for wage discrimination. The law counteracts a Supreme Court decision, and is strongly opposed by business groups.

The new law removes limits on the length of time a worker has to file a wage discrimination lawsuit against an employer.

President Obama says the law sends a clear message.

"That making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody. That there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it is not just unfair and illegal - but bad for business - to pay somebody less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability," he said.

Called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, the law is named after a female Alabama tire company employee. The 70-year-old Ledbetter says, near the end of a 20-year career, she became aware that she had been paid significantly less than her male co-workers while performing the same duties. The cumulative pay gap allegedly totaled in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A jury found in her favor. But the case was appealed, and the Supreme Court eventually threw out the complaint. The court ruled that Ledbetter should have filed a claim within 180 days of when the alleged discrimination began. Ledbetter says she only became aware of the pay difference years later.

Ledbetter's case drew national attention, and Congress moved to craft legislation to give workers more time to file wage discrimination lawsuits. Last year, then-presidential candidate Obama embraced Ledbetter's cause; she addressed the Democratic National Convention and appeared in an Obama campaign ad.

"I worked at this plant for 20 years before I learned the truth," she said. "I had been paid 40 percent less than men doing the same work. I had the same skills as the men at my plant. My family needed that money."

Corporate America is not cheering the new law. America's biggest business federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says eliminating time limits for lawsuits will cripple the ability of employers to mount an effective legal defense.

"Voluntary mediation and prompt resolution of disputes are only possible when claims are raised in a timely manner," said Michael Eastman, the chamber's labor policy director. "The law's purpose cannot be served if plaintiffs are allowed to wait for years before filing a claim. The result of this legislation will be more frivolous claims against employers that will only benefit lawyers."

The Ledbetter case highlights that fact that some women and minorities continue to be paid less than their male or non-minority co-workers. The White House says wage discrimination is never acceptable, and is particularly harmful during tough economic times.