President Barack Obama signed an equal-pay bill into law Thursday before cheering labor and women leaders who fought hard for it and the woman whose history-making lawsuit gave impetus to the cause.
Obama, choosing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as the first bill to sign as president, called it a “wonderful day” and declared that ending pay disparities between men and woman an issue not just for women, but for all workers.
With Ledbetter standing by his side, Obama said she lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits that she “still feels today.” He then signed the measure that effectively nullifies a 2007 Supreme Court decision and makes it easier for workers to sue for discrimination by allowing them more time to do so.
“Making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone,” 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 neared the end of her 19-year career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala, and she filed a lawsuit. But the high court held in a 5-4 decision that she missed her chance to bring the action.
First lady Michelle Obama, in a separate reception with Ledbetter in the State Dining Room, praised her courage and principles. “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.
Ledbetter said the richest reward is that because of the new law, the nation’s daughters and granddaughters will have a better deal.
“That’s what makes this fight worth fighting,” Ledbetter said. “That’s what made this fight one we had to win.”
Earlier, the president appeared in a jammed East Room, and his entrance and many lines of his brief remarks were met with happy applause and yells.
He paid special tribute to Ledbetter, who fought for the bill even though it won’t allow her to recover any money for herself.
And in the room were the living symbols of this fight: Nancy Pelosi, first woman speaker of the House, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who took her pursuit of the presidency further than any other woman, even though she ultimately lost to Obama in the Democratic primary.
Of Ledbetter, Obama exclaimed: “This grandmother from Alabama kept on fighting, because she was thinking about the next generation.”
Ledbetter became a regular feature in Obama’s campaign for the White House, addressing the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year and traveling to Washington aboard Obama’s train for the inauguration ceremonies. Obama spoke strongly in support of legislation to change the Supreme Court decision during his campaign and the Democratic-controlled Congress moved it to the top of the agenda for the new session that opened this month.
The high court said a person must file a claim of discrimination within 180 days of a company’s initial decision to pay a worker less than it pays another worker doing the same job. Under the new bill, given final passage in Congress this week, every new discriminatory paycheck would extend the statute of limitations for another 180 days.
Congress attempted to update the law to extend the time, but the Bush White House and Senate Republicans blocked the legislation in the last session of Congress
Obama cited Census Bureau figures that women still receive only about 78 cents for every dollar that men get for doing equivalent jobs — “women of color even less,” he said.
The measure, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act, also applies to discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin, disability or age.