As the presidential campaign waned and the economic meltdown waxed, the candidates did their best to demonstrate an ability to empathize with America's Everyman -- the regular Joe, the working stiff. John McCain had Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, and Barack Obama had a working woman who had been stiffed: Lilly Ledbetter.
Ledbetter, a 19-year veteran of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., sued the company when she learned that, for much of her career, male counterparts had been paid more for doing the same work. Yet in an interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so narrow the justices must have been squinting when they read it, the Supreme Court did not deny that Ledbetter had been discriminated against, but ruled that she should have filed suit within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck, not 180 days from the time she learned of the difference in pay. The ruling upended long-standing practice in courts across the country, which had held that the clock starts ticking with an employee's awareness of his or her plight. Under the court's new framework, any employer that could hide pay discrimination for six months could get away with it, leaving workers with no legal recourse.
Then-Sen. Obama co-sponsored a bill that would have given employees more time to file suit -- the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- and Democrats largely supported it. But Republicans overwhelmingly opposed the measure as anti-business. President Bush, calling the bill a job killer, threatened to veto it, and although the House had passed a similar bill, the Senate, unable to amass enough votes to hold off a filibuster, did not vote.
Who knows what Wurzelbacher would be doing today had McCain won the election -- but we do know what's in store for Ledbetter and other workers, male and female, who are paid less because of gender: access to justice. The act, which President-elect Obama is eager to sign, states the obvious: that a violation occurs with every paycheck that continues a discriminatory practice. It sailed through the House on Friday, as did the Paycheck Fairness Act. The paycheck legislation bars employers from penalizing workers who share salary information and requires some employers to disclose to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission their wage rates for general job classifications. It also prohibits companies from lowering any employee's salary in order to pay others fairly. The Senate is scheduled to take up both bills in days to come.
These measures deserve swift passage and presidential approval. Prudent employers will take stock of Washington's changed politics and use this moment to set right their training, hiring, promotion and pay practices.