Senate Rejects Equal Pay Bill

(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) It sounds like an obvious moral truth: Women doing the same work at the same jobs as men should earn the same pay. And to help make that happen, many argue the government should collect and publicize data on who's paid what for what kinds of jobs.

But when legislation along those lines came before the U.S. Senate Wednesday, the measure was defeated 58-41 -- after all Republicans, one Democrat, and many business and employer groups said what sounds like a well-intentioned bill was full of landmines, like potential bonanzas for trial lawyers.

The Paycheck Fairness Act passed the House overwhelmingly in 2009, on the heels of the so-called Lily Ledbetter law requiring equal pay for equal work, named for a Goodyear tire worker who lost a wage bias case largely on statute-of-limitation grounds.

The fairness act was intended, in part, to update a 1963 equal-wage law and put some more teeth in the Ledbetter law.

"Women should be able to have information,'' says Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the John W. McCormack Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "I mean, this country is based on the idea of transparent government.'' She said that if female workers could "find out what all your friends are making, it does give you power ... How can you fight discrimination by pay if can't get the information?''

However, on Wednesday, 41 U.S. senators provided the necessary plurality to block the chamber from taking up the measure. The 41 included all three Republicans from New England -- Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson.

They had strong support from employer groups like Associated Industries of Massachusetts, whose senior vice president, Brian Gilmore, said, "We really don't think it's a paycheck fairness act.'' One big fear: Because the law would have no cap on punitive damages in wage-bias cases, plaintiff lawyers might reap millions in punitive damages for trumped-up wage-discrimination cases, while women involved got only token cash payments of a few hundred dollars, as has happened in class actions like asbestos-exposure suits.

"It allows more class action suits, and we believe some of those may be frivolous,'' Gilmore said. "It will encourage more work for the plaintiff bar to get people involved in class action suits.'' Gilmore said in recent years 60 percent of wage-discrimination complaints brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been turned down as unfounded.

One scenario floated by critics: What if 7-Eleven decided to offer clerks more money to work at stores in high crime zones, and what if more men decided they were willing to work in unsafe areas than women, and wound up making more money on average. Would 7-Eleven get sued? Should it be?

"It may cause the courts to get involved in making business decisions that they haven't any experience making,'' Gilmore said.

Besides employers' fears about potentially unlimited damages in equal-pay class action suits, another big concern was that this could force companies with as few as 3 employees to file a lot of paperwork with the government. And if employers made even good-faith mistakes about how they categorized a worker under the government rules, they could face lawsuits or fines.

Whether you're for or against, Carol Hardy-Fanta calls this yet another example of how much it matters whom Massachusetts voters hired last January. "If (Attorney General) Martha Coakley had won the Senate race back in January, she would have definitely voted for the Paycheck Fairness Act.'' And become possibly the 59th -- and maybe the crucial 60th -- vote to make it law.

President Obama issued this statement late Wednesday about the vote: "I am deeply disappointed that a minority of senators have prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from finally being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote. This bill passed in the House almost two years ago; today, it had 58 votes to move forward, the support of the majority of Senate, and the support of the majority of Americans. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in history, this bill would ensure that American women and their families aren't bringing home smaller paychecks because of discrimination. It also helps businesses that pay equal wages as they struggle to compete against discriminatory competition. but a partisan minority of senators blocked this common-sense law. Despite today's vote, my administration will continue to fight for a woman's right to equal pay for equal work.''

With videographer Mike Bellwin

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