Barack Obama's first act upon taking office in January 2009 was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law, which was designed to give women better access to legal options when they discovered pay discrimination at their workplace, became something of a controversy during the 2012 campaign. Democrats alleged that Republicans had been waging a “War on Women,” and one of candidate Mitt Romney's top advisers reported that Romney would not have signed the act into law.
This caused some degree of concern among women's rights groups, who feared that a Romney win might lead to a repeal of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, particularly if Republicans were also able to gain control of the Senate and maintain control of the House of Representatives.
With Obama winning the race for the White House and Democrats picking up seats in both houses of Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act looks like it's here to stay. But what, exactly, are the provisions of the law—and how can employers and employees expect it to affect them in a dispute over wage discrimination?
The reason the Fair Pay Act was passed in the first place had to do with Lilly Ledbetter's lawsuit against her employer, Goodyear. After having worked for Goodyear for some years, Ledbetter discovered that the men who were performing the same job duties as she performed were receiving substantially higher salaries. Promotions were also being made in a way that seemed to indicate a pattern of sex discrimination.
At the time the suit was filed, Ledbetter's attorneys were operating under the assumption that the 180 day statute of limitations on claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits sex discrimination in employment) started running the day she found out about the discrimination. However, the Supreme Court disagreed: they said that the 180 day period started when the discrimination began, and that Ledbetter (who had worked for years in the discriminatory conditions) could not collect.
This outraged a number of women's rights advocates. According to these advocates, actually finding out about instances of discrimination should be required before the statute of limitations begins—after all, how many people start asking their co-workers for their salary data when they haven't even been working somewhere for six months?
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed as a response to these criticisms. According to the Fair Pay Act, employees now have a full 180 days to file a claim for discrimination after finding out about the discrimination, not after the discrimination begins.
While the law has received its share of criticism, usually from pro-business conservatives, it has also made it significantly easier for people to bring discrimination cases to trial. In spite of this and other laws to ensure pay equality, studies in the United States have consistently shown a pay gap that is not fully explainable based on maternity leave, job titles, or hours worked.
Sources: uscourts.gov, whitehouse.gov