Lilly Ledbetter and Her Sparkly New Law
Jan 30th, 2009 by Sonja

It’s just too bad she won’t accrue any benefits from it.

Maybe you remember Lilly from last year’s presidential campaign. Or if you’re really observant, from the news in May 2007. If you don’t, allow me to tell you a little bit of Lilly’s story.

Lilly Ledbetter worked for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber company down in Alabama. She was an Area Manager (aka plant supervisor). She worked at Goodyear from 1979 to 1998. When she retired in 1998, she was the only female Area Manager, the rest of her colleagues were male. All 15 of them. Another unique characteristic that her colleagues shared was that they all earned more than she did. Every single one of them. Even those who had worked at Goodyear less time than Lilly had. Even those who did a worse job than she did.

Sometime in early 1998, Lilly finally had enough evidence and she filed paperwork with the EEOC (that’s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). She retired in July and in November she filed a lawsuit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company claiming that they had discriminated against her on the basis of her gender. That’s when the legal wrangling began. I’ll spare you the details. But it went all the way up to the highest court in the land.

The Supremes got it. No, poodles, not Diana Ross and the Supremes. The Supreme Court. The Nine in Black. However, their decision made just about as much sense as MacArthur Park.

Now you can read the ruling in it’s entirety if you’d like. You can download it for yourself here. However, the essence of the majority (5 to 4) decision, handed down by Justice Alito, was that Ms. Ledbetter had missed the boat. You see, Lilly had filed suit saying, in essence, that because there was discrimination in her pay at the end of her employment, there had been ongoing discrimination for a long period of time. Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas (who, being African American, ought to know better) disagreed and wrote, essentially that Ms. Ledbetter ought to have known about the discrimination in her salary from the very beginning and in order to have gained redress, should have filed grievances at every instance. They used plenty of the court’s own rulings as precedence for this. Every single one of which as been overwritten by Congress. They ignored the intent and the scope of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and the National Labor Relations Act.

You see, the original court in which Ms. Ledbetter filed her claim she was given redress for the wrong and was awarded $3.5 million dollars in lost income. That seemed a little steep to me when I first saw the number, because at the time of her retirement the disparity in income was not that great. Ms. Ledbetter was earning $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236. However, then I realized that while the immediate difference was not great, this difference would play out for perhaps 30 years or more during her retirement. Ms. Ledbetter had not had the opportunity to save as much for retirement, nor Social Security as her male counterparts and so that must also be accounted for in the redress.

You may be wondering why Ms. Ledbetter won. Well, until the Supreme Court ruling, the presumption was that the clock (180 days) started running on the day that one recieved the most recent (or current) discriminatory paycheck, NOT the first discriminatory paycheck. So the court in which she originally filed suit found that she presented a valid case and gave her redress. Goodyear Tire did not like that answer and filed an appeal. Thus the case wound it’s way to the Supreme Court.

Think back for a moment to your employment experiences. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Think about the notion that salary decisions might be public knowledge.

Have you finished guffawing yet?

That’s exactly what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought too. She wrote the dissenting opinion. Then took the unusual step of reading it from the bench after the majority opinion had been read. If you’ve never read Supreme Court decisions, this is a good one to cut your teeth on. It’s fairly straightforward and you already know what’s going on. Even more interesting (to me) are the dissenting opinions. The writing in those are more relaxed and less full of legalese, because they don’t count for as much. That is, future jurisprudence will not necessarily be relying upon the dissent. Reading the dissenting opinion from the bench is very unusual. It carries a certain weight; it goes beyond saying, “We in the minority disagree.” to also spitting on your shoes. In public. Here is some of what Justice Ginsburg had to say:

The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination. 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.

Pay disparities are thus significantly different from adverse actions “such as termination, failure to promote, . . . or refusal to hire,” all involving fully communicated discrete acts, “easy to identify” as discriminatory.

There is so much more. This may not sound like much to the untrained ear/eye, but in the language of the Supreme Court it is a stinging rebuke. Especially since it was delivered in a public address.

And so things stood for nearly two years. But two days ago, President Obama and the U.S. Senate set the scales of justice just a little bit right again. The Senate approved legislation which would establish that the clock starts with the most recent discriminatory paycheck NOT the first one. Then President Obama signed it into law. It was the second law he signed since taking office. It’s known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And, God bless her, Lilly won’t get one thin dime from it. The rest of us will. Or not. But at least we will have gained an equal footing on which to stand up for ourselves.

As Gail Collins wrote in yesterday’s NYTimes:

Ledbetter, who was widowed in December, won’t get any restitution of her lost wages; her case can’t be retried. She’s now part of a long line of working women who went to court and changed a little bit of the world in fights that often brought them minimal personal benefit.

I highly recommend that op-ed piece. For two reasons. First, you’ll read about women who have paved the way for the rest of us, the un-sung heroines in mostly blue-collar jobs who made it possible for us to get where we are today. Second, many of the cases that Gail writes about, were also used as precedence by Alito, et al; cases the Court ruled on which were then overwritten by Congress.

So, if you think about it today, say a prayer for Lilly Ledbetter and Eulalie Cooper and Patricia Lorance and Lorena Weeks. They fought so we could stand.
Cross-posted at Emerging Women

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