HOW fitting that the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama was a civil rights bill that gives women and other workers new power to sue for decades-old discrimination in the workplace. The welcome action reverses a recent Supreme Court ruling that had unfairly restricted the ability of employees to file pay-discrimination lawsuits.
That decision involved a longtime supervisor at a Goodyear plant in Alabama who didn't learn that she was paid less than her male counterparts until she was nearing the end of her 19-year career. Lilly Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received a letter saying she had grounds to sue.
A jury found that indeed the company had paid Ms. Ledbetter less than male supervisors in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Goodyear appealed, and won a federal appellate ruling that she was too late to sue.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, hell hath no fury like a woman paid less than another worker for doing the same job, and the 70-year-old grandmother took her case to the Supreme Court. Even though the high court didn't deny that Ms. Ledbetter had suffered discrimination and was only made aware of the injustice belatedly, it interpreted the statute of limitations covering compensation claims to mean six months after the initial pay discrepancy occurred.
Never mind that the long-held interpretation of the statute of limitations over pay inequity by lower courts and the EEOC was that each discriminatory paycheck represents a fresh act of discrimination. Congress tried to extend the time for filing claims last session but was blocked by the Bush administration and Senate Republicans.
Still, the one-woman crusade for fair pay continued and finally paid off with Mr. Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which essentially rewrites the rules specifying the time within which workers may sue under the Civil Rights Act. Under the new bill passed by Congress this week, workers may bring a lawsuit against an employer for up to six months after they receive any paycheck alleged to be discriminatory.
Critics predict the change will encourage a flood of lawsuits by workers asserting "stale claims." But proponents counter with, "If you don't want to be sued, don't discriminate."
That admonition should be the enduring lesson of the Ledbetter legislation.