Can anyone have seriously imagined that a retired worker from Goodyear would rise to national prominence over a case she lost at the U.S. Supreme Court regarding statute of limitations? And yet, at tonight’s Democratic National Convention, Lilly Ledbetter will take center stage for a few minutes.
No doubt we’ll hear about the Paycheck Fairness Act bill because she’s not endorsing anyone for President. “Equal Pay for Equal Work” has been one of the talking points of the week.
There’s been lots of talk of late about the act, which arose from the Ledbetter case (though there was also a Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act bill out there as well). One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rosa DeLauro commented on it on the Huffington Post late last week and I summarized the latest debate about the bill in a post as well. Businesses and others have been critical of the act, even though it passed the U.S. House of Representatives last month (Heritage WebMemo, 7/30; Examiner, 8/6; OpenMarket, 8/6).
What’s missing from the debate about the bill, unfortunately, is a discussion about what the bill is about and should be about. It’s not really about pay equity — after all, we already have the Equal Pay Act for that. It’s really about allowing indivdiuals to recover much more in the way of damages than they could otherwise recover (though you’d be hard-pressed to make heads or tails of it from the seemingly technical language used). And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with advancing that goal if there was a fair debate on the merits.
But unfortunately, the public debate on the bill seems to fall into the classic stereotypes that each side rolls out with a piece of new legislation. Proponents of the bill suggest that those who are for the bill are FOR pay equity, and those opposing the bill are AGAINST pay equity, which is just hyperbole. Opponents of the bill have used hyperbole of their own, ignoring the fact that corporations have had to comply with the Equal Pay Act for years and that many are well-suited to address such claims.
It’s hard to see how some changes will have any real impact on employers. For instance, one part changes the language regarding a “factor other than sex” defense that an employer can raise to a “bona fide factor other than sex”. While one can debate the theorhetical differences in language, the real-world effect of the change is probably minimal for employers. After all, do employers really make salary decisions and think “well, I can explain the differences with reason, but is it a ‘bona fide’ reason”? And small businesses will be excluded from the act, in the same way that they are excluded from coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
On the other hand, proponents of the bill gloss over the fact that removing some caps on compensatory and punitive damages — as the bill proposes — could have a significant effect on employers and the likelihood of lawsuits (one need only look at the rise of Title VII litigation after the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed for a historical perspective).
Proponents also ignore the fact that the punitive damages portion of the bill would mark a change in philosophy regarding punitive damages (to see the changes in context, click here). For example, one change would allow punitive damages to be awarded even when no intentional discrimination has been proved — which contradicts the traditional notion that punitive damages should be issued to punish the defendant for some type of malice or reckless behavior.
The political reality is that some version of this bill is going to get passed and employers need to keep a watchful eye on the bill. We’ll see in the upcoming weeks whether a compromise is eventually fashioned (much like the compromise being done for the ADA Amendments Act of 2008) or whether this is just political posturing in an election year. Either way, here’s (perhaps foolishly) hoping that the debate on the bill’s merits gets more substantive than just slogans.
(At Point of Law, Walter Olson’s other site, Carter Wood provides his insights into tonight’s happenings as well.)