The Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3220) stalled in the U.S. Senate when supporters failed to muster enough support on June 5, 2012, to end a filibuster of the politically charged measure.
The bill would have prohibited companies from retaliating against workers who inquire about pay disparities. In addition, the measure would have allowed workers to sue their employers for punitive damages if there is evidence of wide variances in salary levels when comparing the pay of male and female employees.
Supporters of the bill claim that the measure would help strengthen reforms enacted in 2009 with the Lilly Ledbetter paycheck law, which expanded the statute of limitations for filing equal-pay lawsuits.
Business groups had voiced their opposition to S. 3220, claiming that it would give the federal government unprecedented control over how private-sector workers are paid. In addition, opponents said the measure would open the compensation policy of every U.S. employer to endless court challenges and reviews requested by employees who are unhappy with their salaries.
According to a June 4, 2012, letter to Congress from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Paycheck Fairness Act would "expand remedies under [the Equal Pay Act] to include unlimited punitive and compensatory damages, significantly erode employer defenses for legitimate pay disparities, and imposes invalid tools for enforcement by the Labor Department," and it "would open up compensation and employment decisions to limitless review by courts and juries and would ultimately lead to an inefficient, cumbersome, and costly salary-setting process. In addition, the bill would modify existing rules concerning collective actions, making it easier for plaintiffs’ attorneys to mount class action suits."
All Republican senators voted against cloture. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was the lone Democratic senator to jump ranks and vote with the GOP senators. Some political observers say the cloture vote was one of a series of election year political ploys by Democrats to get Republicans on the record as opposing a key workplace right for women.
President Barack Obama voiced his support for the bill and told reporters during a telephone briefing on June 4, 2012, that “women are the breadwinners for a lot of families, and if they’re making less than men do for the same work, families are going to have to get by with less money for child care and tuition and rent unless Congress passes this legislation.”
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.
Equal Pay Act Places Burden on Employer to Justify Salary Divergence, SHRM Online Legal Issues, March 2012
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