News & Events

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2009 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Lilly Ledbetter worked for almost 20 years at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Ala. as a salaried supervisor area manager. She worked the overnight shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., where she reported being sexually harassed and discriminated against. She testified before Congress in 2007 that a supervisor once asked for sexual favors in return for good job performance evaluations. Nonetheless, in 1996 she received a “Top Performance Award” from the company.

But, it was not until she was about to retire that she learned —from an anonymous source—that she was receiving far less salary than her 15 male co-workers performing the same work. While she was making $3,727 per month ($44,724 per year), the men were making $4,286 to $5,236 per month. This meant that she was being paid 15 percent less that the lowest paid male and 40 percent less than the highest paid male. She had no idea that she was discriminated against since she had been explicitly prohibited by the company from discussing wage rates.

Ms. Ledbetter herself stated that when she was hired by Goodyear, there were two things she was required to do: .” . . to give my fair share to the United Way campaign, being a salaried person, and the other was not to discuss my salary with anyone outside my family.”

EEOC complaint
In March 1998 she submitted a questionnaire to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asking about salaries. She followed that with a formal charge of pay discrimination in July 1998, claiming violations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Goodyear responded by reassigning her to lifting tires.
She filed a suit which went to trial. A jury found in her favor and awarded her $3.3 million, later reduced by the judge to $300,000.

The pay discrimination that she suffered in fact is not limited to her working life, since it directly affected her retirement benefits (pension, 401(k) plan and Social Security). So the discrimination continues into her retirement years. Today she lives from paycheck to paycheck as she states “I will be a second class citizen for the rest of my life . . . it affects every penny I have today.”

But the Goodyear Company appealed the lower court’s award to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision in 2007 delivered by Justice Samuel Alito (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618), the Supreme Court decided that she was not entitled to any compensation because she had filed her claim more that 180 days after receiving her first discriminatory paycheck. Of course, because of the company’s gag rule on discussing pay, there was no way she could have been aware of this discrimination. But the Supreme Court—in its infinite wisdom—ignored that relevant fact!

However, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg strongly dissented with the Court’s majority decision. In a rare practice, Justice Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench. According to The New York Times, “To read a dissent aloud is an act of theater that justices use to convey their view that the majority is not only mistaken, but profoundly wrong. It happens just a handful of times a year.” Obviously, Justice Ginsburg felt passionately about this decision.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg stated:
“Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasons for those differentials. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves.”

Finally, she challenged Congress to overturn what she called the Court’s “parsimonious reading” of the federal law against discrimination in the workplace.

Congress acts
In 2007, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was introduced by several Democratic members of Congress. It basically revised the law to have the 180-day statute of limitations for pay discrimination reset with each new discriminatory paycheck.

The bill met strong opposition from corporate America and national Republican leaders including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, President Bush and Sen. John McCain. Vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin saw the bill as only a boon to trial lawyers stating: “I’m absolutely for equal pay for equal work. The Ledbetter pay act – it was gonna turn into a boon for trial lawyers who, I believe, could have taken advantage of women who were many, many years ago who would allege some kind of discrimination.”

In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. As the bill was headed for a vote, Ledbetter lobbied for its passage with a personal letter to Congress that stated, in part, “I may have lost my personal battle, but I haven’t given up. I’m still fighting for all the other women and girls out there who deserve equal pay and equal treatment under the law. We owe it to our daughters, our granddaughters and ourselves.”

Obama signs the bill into law
On Jan. 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law—his first official bill as president. It restores the pre-Ledbetter position of the EEOC that each discriminatory paycheck is a wrong actionable under EEOC statutes. The EEOC Web site states that “… the Act recognizes the ‘reality of wage discrimination’ and restores ‘bedrock principles of American law’.”

Sadly though, Lilly Ledbetter will not see any adjustment in her income or retirement despite the new law since it has a retroactive date of May 28, 2007. While she was present at the White House for the signing, her husband, Charles, was not with her having died just the previous month of cancer. Yet, in June 2007 Ledbetter stated, “I told my pastor when I die, I want him to be able to say at my funeral that I made a difference.”

She most certainly did.