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Public Statements

Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, it is a privilege to introduce the Safe Nursing and Patient Care Act today, and I am pleased to have my colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kerry, joining me in this effort. This important bill will limit mandatory overtime for nurses in order to protect patient safety and improve working conditions for nurses.

The widespread insistence on mandatory overtime across the country means that over-worked nurses are often forced to provide care when they are too tired to perform their jobs. The result is unnecessary risk for their patients and for the nurses themselves. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that nurses who work shifts of 12 1/2 hours or more are three times more likely to commit errors than nurses who work a standard shift of 8 1/2 hours or less.

A study by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and RAND Corporation found that when nurses work too much overtime, their patients are more likely to suffer hospital-related infections.

These studies, and many more like them, compellingly illustrate the critical threat to patient safety when nurses are overworked.

The grueling conditions in which nurses are obliged to work jeopardizes the future of this essential profession. We face a critical shortage of nurses. The American Hospital Association reports that hospitals needed 118,000 more RNs to fill immediate vacancies in December 2005. This is an 8.5 percent vacancy rate, and it is expected to rise to 20 percent in coming years, undermining their ability to provide emergency care. In addition, nearly half a million trained nurses are not currently working in the nursing profession, even though they are desperately needed.

Job dissatisfaction and harsh overtime are major factors in the nursing shortage. As a 2004 report by the CDC concluded, poor working conditions are contributing to difficulties with retention and recruitment in nursing. Nurses are not treated with the respect they deserve in the workplace, and many caring nurses refuse to work in an environment in which they know they are putting their patients at risk.

Our Safe Nursing and Patient Care Act deals with these critical problems. By restricting mandatory overtime for nurses, the act helps ensure that nurses are able to provide the highest quality of care to their patients. By improving the quality of life of nurses, the act encourages more dedicated workers to enter nursing and to make it their lifetime career.

This legislation is obviously needed to protect public safety. Federal safety standards already limit work hours for pilots, flight attendants, truck drivers, railroad engineers and other professionals. We need to guarantee the same safe working conditions for nurses, who care for so many of our most vulnerable citizens.

Some hospitals have already taken action. In recent years, after negotiations with their nurses, Brockton Hospital and St. Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts have agreed to limit mandatory overtime. Mr. President, 11 States have adopted laws or regulations to end forced overtime. These limits will protect patients and improve working conditions for nurses, and will help in the recruitment and retention of nurses in the future.

Improving conditions for nurses is an essential part of our ongoing effort to reduce medical errors and improve patient outcomes. But it is also a matter of basic fairness and respect. Nurses perform one of the most difficult and important jobs in our society. They care about their patients and want to provide the best possible treatment. They cannot do their job when they're exhausted and overworked. Nurses, and the patients they care for, deserve better. The Safe Nursing and Patient Care Act respects the dignity of hardworking nurses, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

By Mr. KENNEDY (for himself, Mr. Specter, Mr. Harkin, Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Snowe, Ms. Mikulski, Mr. Obama, Mr. Durbin, Mr. Dodd, Mr. Leahy, Mrs. McCaskill, Mr. Whitehouse, Mrs. Boxer, Ms. Stabenow, and Mrs. Murray):

S. 1843. A bill to amend title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to clarify that an unlawful practice occurs each time compensation is paid pursuant to a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, it's an honor to join my colleagues in introducing the Fair Pay Restoration Act to correct the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which undermined basic protection for workers against pay discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision also undermines pay discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Our bill would restore the clear intent of Congress when we passed these important laws that workers must have a reasonable time to file a pay discrimination claim after they become victims of discriminatory compensation.

No American should be denied equal pay for equal work. Employees' ability to provide for their children, save for retirement, and enjoy the benefit of their labor should not be limited by discrimination. The Court's decision undermined these bedrock principles by imposing unrealistically short time limits on such claims.

The jury in this case found that Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company discriminated against Lilly Ledbetter by downgrading her evaluations because she was a woman in a traditionally male job. For over a decade, the company used these discriminatory evaluations to pay her less than male workers who held the same position and performed the same duties. Supervisors at the plant where she worked were openly biased against women. One told her that ``the plant did not need women,'' and that they ``caused problems.'' Ms. Ledbetter's pay fell to 15 to 40 percent behind her male counterparts.

Finally, after years, she realized what was happening and filed suit for the back pay she had been unfairly denied. The jury found that the only reason Ms. Ledbetter was paid less was because she was a woman, and she was awarded full damages to correct this basic injustice.

The Supreme Court ruled against her, holding that she filed her lawsuit far too long after Goodyear first began to pay her less than her male colleagues. Never mind that she had no way of knowing at first that male workers were being paid more. Never mind that the company discriminated against her for decades, and that the discrimination continued with each new paycheck she received.

The Supreme Court's ruling defies both Congress's intent and common sense. Pay discrimination is not like other types of discrimination, because employees generally don't know what their colleagues earn, and such information is difficult to obtain.

Pay discrimination is not like being told ``You're fired,'' or ``You didn't get the job,'' when workers at least know they have been denied a job benefit. With pay discrimination, the paycheck typically comes in the mail, and employees usually have no idea if they have been paid fairly. They should be able to file a complaint within a reasonable time after receiving a discriminatory paycheck, instead of having to file the complaint soon after the company first decides to shortchange them for discriminatory reasons.

The decision actually creates a perverse incentive for workers to file lawsuits before they know a pay decision is based on discrimination. Workers who wait to learn the truth before filing a complaint of discrimination could be out of time. As a result, the decision will create unnecessary litigation as workers rush to beat the clock in their claims for equal pay.

The Supreme Court's decision also breaks faith with the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support, a vote of 93 to 5 in the Senate, and 381 to 38 in the House. The 1991 act had corrected this same problem in the context of seniority, overturning the Court's decision in a separate case. At the time, there was no need to clarify Title VII for pay discrimination claims, since

the courts were interpreting Title VII correctly. Obviously, Congress now needs to act again to ensure that the law adequately protects workers against pay discrimination.

The Congressional Budget Office has made clear that this bill will not create costs for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Federal courts. It simply restores the status quo as Congress intended and as it existed on May 28, 2007, before the Ledbetter decision was made.

It is unacceptable that some workers are unable to file a lawsuit against ongoing discrimination. Yet that is what happened to Lilly Ledbetter. I hope that all of us, on both sides of the aisle, can join in correcting this obvious wrong.

In recent years, the Supreme Court also has undermined other bipartisan civil rights laws in ways Congress never intended. It has limited the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, made it harder to protect children who are harassed in school, and eliminated peoples' right to challenge practices with a discriminatory impact on their access to public services. The Court has also made it more difficult for workers with disabilities to prove that they're entitled to the protection of the law.

Congress needs to correct these problems as well. The Fair Pay Restoration Act makes sure that what happened to Lilly Ledbetter will not happen to any others. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her powerful dissent, the Court's decision is ``totally at odds with the robust protection against employment discrimination Congress intended.'' I urge my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, to restore the law as it was before the decision, so that victims of ongoing pay discrimination have a reasonable time to file their claims.

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