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In Signing First Bill Into Law, Obama Touts Equal-pay for All

The president called the occasion of signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act a “wonderful day,” and declared that ending pay disparities between men and woman an issue not just for women, but for all workers.

“Lilly Ledbetter did not set out to be a trailblazer or a household name,” he said. “She was just a good hard worker who did her job — and she did it well — for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for doing the very same work.”

With Ledbetter standing by his side, the president said she lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits losses that she “still feels today.” He then signed the measure that effectively nullifies a Supreme Court decision on the issue and makes it easier for workers to sue for discrimination by allowing employees to bring a lawsuit for up to six months after they receive any paycheck that they claim is discriminatory.

“Making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone,” Mr. Obama said. “That there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it’s not just unfair and illegal — but bad for business — to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability.”

Ledbetter said she didn’t become aware of the large discrepancy in her pay until she received an anonymous note near the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. She filed an EEOC complaint, and later a lawsuit, over the pay gap and won early court battles with Goodyear over the issue.

But in a later appeal, the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that she waited too long to bring the action to court.

Pay equity was a sensitive issue during the presidential election campaign last year, especially among labor unions and women voters. On average, women in the United States are paid 23 percent less than men, while minority women receive even less.

“In signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message — that making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone, that there are no second class citizens in our workplaces,” said the president, who is in his second week in office.

During the Bush administration, the Supreme Court reversed what critics described as decades of legal precedent by declaring that discrimination claims must be filed within 180 days of the first offense.

The court rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s contention that each new discriminatory paycheck triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations.

The law signed by Mr. Obama amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to put the old Equal Employment Opportunity Commission standard into law, and covers pay discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, religion, age and disabilities.

Some Republicans and business leaders have expressed concern the measure could trigger an explosion of lawsuits based on old claims, discourage employers from hiring women and undermine efforts to stem the recession.

At a reception after the signing ceremony, first lady Michelle Obama praised Ledbetter, whom she met during the presidential campaign, and praised her “commitment, her dedication, her focus.”

“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,” the first lady said, according to a White House pool report.

Ledbetter became a regular feature in the president’s campaign, addressing the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year and traveling to Washington aboard his train for the inauguration ceremonies.

Ledbetter won’t profit financially from the signing of the law, but voiced pride in carrying her case all the way to the White House.

“Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of,” she said Thursday, according to the New York Times. “In fact, I will never see a cent. But with the president’s signature today I have an even richer reward.”

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