WASHINGTON - Declaring that ending pay disparity is not just a women's issue, President Barack Obama signed legislation Thursday that gives workers more time to take their pay discrimination cases to court.
Lilly Ledbetter, the Alabama woman whose story was the impetus behind the new law, stood alongside Obama as he signed the first bill of his presidency. Also in the East Room of the White House were labor, women's, civil rights advocates and members of Congress for whom the bill was a priority.
"Equal pay is by no means just a women's issue, it's a family issue," Obama said. "And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month's paycheck to simple and plain discrimination."
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act effectively nullifies a 2007 Supreme Court decision that denied Ledbetter an opportunity for redress.
Ledbetter, 70, has said she did not learn about the sizable discrepancy in pay between her and her male co-workers until near the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. She sued, but the high court said in a 5-4 decision that she missed her chance to bring the action.
The court said a person must file a discrimination claim within 180 days of a company's initial decision to pay a worker less than another doing the same job.
Under the new law, each new discriminatory paycheck would extend the statute of limitations for an additional 180 days. That was the interpretation before the Supreme Court was asked to step in.
First lady Michelle Obama held a separate reception with Ledbetter in the State Dining Room just down the red-carpeted hallway from the earlier event. "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," Mrs. Obama said.
Ledbetter, who won't benefit from the legislation, said the richest reward is that the nation's daughters and granddaughters will have a better deal.
"That's what makes this fight worth fighting," Ledbetter said. "That's what made this fight one we had to win."
The Bush White House and Senate Republicans blocked the bill in the last session of Congress. But Obama strongly supported it - he talked often about Ledbetter during the presidential campaign - and the Democratic-controlled Congress made it a priority in its opening weeks.
Opponents contended the bill would gut the statute of limitations and benefit trial lawyers by encouraging lawsuits. They also argued that employees could wait to file claims in hopes of reaping larger damage awards.
Supporters said the bill does not change current law limiting back-pay awards to two years, so there would be no incentive to wait to file a claim.
Obama cited Census Bureau figures that show women still earn about 78 cents for every dollar men get for doing equivalent jobs, and it's even less for women of color. He said Ledbetter lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits.
The bill, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act, also applies to discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin, disability or age.