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Warmer Climate for Labor

By Jenn J. Nichols

In January, President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009—the first law enacted under his administration and the first step toward thawing the chill that characterized the federal government’s relationship with labor during the Bush administration.

The Ledbetter Act, which overrides the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, amends previous antidiscrimination law by extending workers’ time limits for filing a claim of discriminatory compensation. The Court ruled that workers had only 180 days from the date a discriminatory practice began— whether or not they knew at the time that the practice existed—to file a pay-equity suit against their employer. The new law clarifies language in and restores the earlier interpretation of long-standing legislation so that each paycheck issued to a worker under an unlawful compensatory practice is considered a discrete action. This change again makes it possible for workers to file a claim even if they learn of their unequal pay after the Courtsupported 180-day limit of when it first began.

The Chronicle of Higher Education called the law “a swift victory for the American Association of University Professors,” and it is. Our government relations experts and legal counsel worked alongside other employee-advocacy groups to make Ledbetter and other progressive employment legislation a priority for the new Congress and administration. As the AAUP’s annual compensation survey demonstrates year after year, sex-based pay inequity is a long-standing and widespread problem in higher education.

Another—and arguably farther-reaching and more powerful—bill was reintroduced in the House of Representatives in January. The Paycheck Fairness Act would amend the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to provide better remedies for victims of sex-based pay discrimination, in part by strengthening workers’ access to retroactive compensation and punitive damages.

Just as importantly, the act acknowledges the complex roots of sex-based pay inequity and champions research, training, and outreach as mandatory tools in combating the problem. Although passed by the House as of this writing, it has not yet been voted on in the Senate. Proponents of the bill are urging the Senate to bring it to a vote as soon as possible. If the act passes, President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

For more information about the AAUP’s government relations work, visit the AAUP Online Advocacy Center or write to Nicole Byrd, AAUP government relations associate.


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