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Obama signs pay equity law

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama signed his first bill into law on Thursday, handing his labor and women’s rights backers a victory by reversing a 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it harder to sue for pay discrimination.

With the woman for whom the law was named at his side, Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act at a White House ceremony. The Democratic-led Congress passed the measure this week and many leaders attended the signing.

“Signing this bill today is to send a clear message: that making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody, that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces,” said the Democratic president.

Pay equity was a sensitive issue during the presidential election campaign last year, especially among labor unions and women voters. On average, U.S. women are paid 23 percent less than men, while minority women receive even less.

First lady Michelle Obama, at one of her highest-profile events since the inauguration last week, hosted a reception for Ledbetter and others who worked for passage of the law.

“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,” the first lady said of Ledbetter.

Ledbetter is an Alabama woman who discovered after 19 years on the job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co that she was the lowest-paid supervisor at her plant despite having more experience than several male co-workers.

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A jury found she was the victim of discrimination. But during the Bush administration, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision reversed what critics described as decades of legal precedent by declaring that discrimination claims must be filed within 180 days of the first offense.

The court rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s contention that each new discriminatory paycheck triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations.

The law signed by Obama amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act to put the old EEOC standard into law, and covers pay discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, religion, age and disabilities.

Some Republicans and business leaders have expressed concern the measure could trigger an explosion of lawsuits based on old claims, discourage employers from hiring women and undermine efforts to stem the recession.

“Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of,” Ledbetter said at the White House reception. “I will never see a cent from my case. But with the passage (of the law) and president’s signature today, I have an even richer reward. I know that my daughters and granddaughters and your daughters and your granddaughters will have a better deal.”

Editing by Jackie Frank