by Reid Maki, NCL’s Director, Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards
When Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Act and President Obama signed it into law January 29, a nonsensical decision of the Supreme Court was effectively overturned. The court had ruled previously that a worker who wanted to sue his or her employer for illegally discriminating against them by paying them less wages based on their sex or race must do so in the first six months after the initial discrimination occurred.
In cases like that of Ledbetter, who worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber for 19 years, workers do not always know when they are being treated unfairly. Ledbetter only found out that she made less than all the other male supervisors because someone (in the months before her retirement) left her note telling her about the unequal pay. It wasn’t a trifling amount either: the lowest paid male supervisor made $550 more a month than she did. Over a nearly 20 year period, that kind of pay disparity adds up.
Ledbetter filed a complaint that year and was told by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she had grounds to sue. She won in a U.S. district court in 2003, but an appeal went to a higher court that ruled she had filed her cases years too late.
In a decision announced in early 2007, the Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, agreed that workers who suffer from an employer’s illegal action have only six months from the time the discrimination began to initiate legal recourse—whether or not they knew about the illegal action! As writer Richard Thompson Ford noted in Slate, “Ledbetter basically grandfathers in longtime pay discrimination.”
Thankfully, Congress set about reversing the decision—as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had called for in her dissenting opinion. The National Consumers League endorsed these efforts in a letter to Congress last August.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, allowing workers to bring a lawsuit within six months of any paycheck—not just the first—that discriminates against them was the first law enacted under the Obama presidency.
President Obama signaled the importance of balancing corporate power and employee rights by inviting Ledbetter to be one of 16 guests to accompany him on his train ride into Washington before he took office. He also danced with her on the night of his inauguration!
“Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of. In fact, I will never see a cent from my case,” said Ledbetter at the signing. “But with the president’s signature today, I have an even richer reward. I know that my daughter and granddaughters … will have a better deal. That’s what makes this fight worth fighting.”