Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ending Wage Discrimination

Lilly Ledbetter worked for almost 20 years at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Alabama. She was a hard working, competent, employee who became a manager. Ms. Ledbetter trained other employees who went on to become managers, many of them men. In 1998 someone left a note in her mailbox detailing how much the other managers (men) were being paid, in comparison to her pay. This was how Ms. Ledbetter learned that all along she’d been paid considerably less than her male equivalents. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (EEOC).

Later that year, after taking early retirement, Ledbetter sued Goodyear, claiming pay discrimination. A district court found in her favor, and awarded her $3 million dollars in back pays and damages. Goodyear appealed, arguing that the claims were invalid due to the statute of limitations on discrimination claims. One is supposed to file suit within 180 days of receiving a discriminatory paycheck. This can be difficult to do when one isn’t aware one is being discriminated against, especially since most companies keep employee wages quite confidential. The statute of limitations seems designed to protect those engaging in wage discrimination.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 for Goodyear. Justice Alito delivered the opinion, stating essentially that Ms. Ledbetter had failed to meet the 180-day filing deadline. Justices Ginsberg, Souter, Breyer, and Stevens were the dissenters. In the minority opinion, Justice Ginsberg pointed out the fact that discrimination often occurs incrementally, over time, thereby rendering the 180-day time limit ridiculous.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Democrats in Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was designed to change how deadlines in equal pay cases are determined. The Republican Senate blocked the bill. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama spoke in favor of the bill. John McCain was against it, saying that it was not needed. The sad truth is that the bill is needed. Women in this country still earn an average of $0.77 for each dollar earned by a man. This affects their lifetime earning potential, their incomes, and their retirement.

The bill came un-stuck in the new Senate, where it passed 61-36 on January 22. The vote went down largely along party lines, but with some interesting differences. All of the 36 who voted against the bill were Republicans, and all of them were men. All of the female Republican Senators (and Arlen Spector) voted in favor of the bill. How would Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski or Kay Bailey Hutchison go back to their districts to explain a no vote to their female constituents? Arlen Spector wasn’t willing – but all of the other GOP male Senators were not troubled in the slightest. This would include NH’s own Judd Gregg. The male GOP position is that this bill will lead to “nuisance” lawsuits. It is indeed a terrible “nuisance” when a company tries to discriminate against women and gets sued for it. Former NH Governor Craig Benson certainly found that out. This is one of the reasons the GOP is currently the minority party, and likely to stay that way. They don’t regard women as equals. Are they smart enough to notice that it was the women senators who failed to toe the party line? The male dinosaurs that rule the GOP had best pay attention. This no vote will haunt Judd Gregg in 2010 if he decides to run for re-election.

On January 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed his first bill into law. It was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. Senator Olympia Snowe stood behind him, looking delighted.

The state of New Mexico is taking action against wage discrimination. Governor Bill Richardson has signed an executive order that will require the state (as an employer) to study its own pay practices regarding race and gender. It also requires private companies that want state contracts to do the same. In this way, companies that don’t know about internal pay inequality can fix it before being sued. Taxpayers will be sure they aren’t helping to fund companies that discriminate. This new policy will help eliminate those “nuisance” lawsuits, because employees will know upfront that they are actually receiving equal pay for equal work. Other states should take notice.

Lilly Ledbetter took a stand against injustice, and in doing so, created positive change. Thanks, Lily.

“Ultimately, equal pay isn't just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families, it's a question of who we are -- and whether we're truly living up to our fundamental ideals; whether we'll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something -- to breathe new life into them with a more enlightened understanding that is appropriate for our time. That is what Lilly Ledbetter challenged us to do.
And today, I sign this bill not just in her honor, but in the honor of those who came before -- women like my grandmother, who worked in a bank all her life, and even after she hit that glass ceiling, kept getting up and giving her best every day, without complaint, because she wanted something better for me and my sister.”
A portion of the comments made by President Obama as he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act

This was published on Jan. 30 as an editorial in the Conway Daily Sun. h/t to AP for the picture.


DissedBelief said...

Thanks for all the great updates here Susan. Yesterday on NPR I heard an excerpt of a speech McCain gave regarding just this issue. He felt that these suits were nuisance and "would not advance the cause of women". And happily it didn't advance his either. Hope he's now history. As for Lilly, after being lifelong Republicans, she and her husband voted Democrat and for Obama. Karma is Obama!

DissedBelief said...

.....a note following the one I left yesterday. What are your thoughts Susan on Judd Greggs possible appt. as Commerce Sec? I'm rather appalled by this. Comments I read on the HuffPost regarding this range from positive to opinions that it would relieve one less Repub. from the voting roll. I don't really understand this but can't imagine Gregg offering anything positive in this position. If he considered equalizing wages for genders and lawsuits against discriminating employers "nuisance", he clearly has an agenda not geared toward equality and opportunity.