Lilly Ledbetter watches behind President Obama as he signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in the White House. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) is at his left.
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WASHINGTON - Declaring that ending pay disparity is not just a women's issue, President Obama signed legislation yesterday 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 Mr. Obama as he signed the first bill of his presidency.
Others 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," Mr. 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 her a chance for redress. Now 70, Ms. Ledbetter has said she did not learn about the sizable pay discrepancy between her and her male co-workers until near the end of her 19 years 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 firm'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 180 days. That was the interpretation before the Supreme Court was asked to step in.
First Lady Michelle Obama held a reception with Ms. Ledbetter in the State Dining Room just down the hall 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.
Ms. Ledbetter, who won't benefit from the act, said the nation's daughters and granddaughters will have a better deal. "That's what makes this fight worth fighting," she 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 Mr. Obama supported it - he talked often about Ms. Ledbetter during the presidential campaign - and the Democratic-controlled Congress made it a priority in its opening weeks.
Opponents said 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. Backers said the bill does not change law limiting back-pay awards to two years, so there would be no incentive to wait to file a claim.
Mr. Obama cited Census Bureau figures that show women still earn about 78 cents for every dollar men get for doing equivalent jobs; it's even less for women of color. He said Ms. 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.
In related developments, officials said Mr. Obama intends to overturn four Bush-era executive orders that unions opposed.
Mr. Obama planned to reverse one order today that allowed unionized firms to post signs informing workers that they were allowed to decertify their union, an order some claim is unfair because nonunion businesses are not required to post signs letting workers know they legally were allowed to vote for a union.
Two Democratic sources also said Mr. Obama would prevent federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses that were intended to influence workers' decisions to form unions or engage in collective bargaining.
A third order would require federal vendors with more than $100,000 in contracts to post workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
The final order would require service contractors at federal buildings to offer jobs to qualified employees when contracts changed. For instance, rank-and-file workers could continue work on the same federal project even if the administrative contract expired. The officials disclosed the plans on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to pre-empt the White House's plans.