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Alabamian Lilly Ledbetter and the Fair Pay Restoration Act

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Six months ago today President Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. The signing of this bill was the culmination of a decade long campaign by Alabamian Lilly Ledbetter to assure that all employees receive equal pay for equal work---even if the employee was unaware of the discrimination at the time and did not file suit. For nearly twenty years, 1979-1998, Ledbetter worked at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant in Gadsden, Alabama. She was promoted to supervisor, but it was not until her retirement in 1998 that she received an anonymous note saying that for years she had been making as much as $1500 a month less then the men who were doing the same job.

Ledbetter started with the same pay but by retirement, she was earning $3,727 per month compared to 15 men who earned from $4,286 per month (lowest paid man) to $5,236 per month (highest paid man). Ledbetter sued and the District Court found in favor of Goodyear because she had not filed her discrimination charge within the required 180 days statutory charging period. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision saying that she could have and should have sued at an earlier date. The Court did not rule on whether or not this was discrimination, just on the statute of limitations to sue. Justice Ruth Ginsberg wrote the dissenting opinion, and in 2007 legislation was introduced in Congress: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The act eventually was passed, and on January 29, 2009, the President signed the bill into law.

Ledbetter posted this story about the proposed bill in April 2008, in The Huffington Post, April 23, 2008. Here Ledbetter comments on the bill and her long struggle against pay discrimination.

Ledbetter: "Today , the Senate may finally vote on a bill named after me which will restore the ability for average Americans to file pay discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws.

"I've been struggling with this issue of pay discrimination for a long time. I was subjected to close to 20 years of pay discrimination at Goodyear. I spent years litigating to get the remedies a jury said I deserved. After the Supreme Court took away my right to sue, I testified [pdf] in front of Congress on the need to fix their decision.

"In the year since that decision, I've crisscrossed the nation speaking of the impact it will have on the lives of millions of workers. Now that we are so close to a vote in the Senate, I've spent the past two days explaining - to Senators, to the media, to the public as a whole -- that a vote for this bill is a vote for the rights of every American worker.

"I've told my story.

"I also make the point that this bill merely restores the law to what it was before the Supreme Court ruled in my case. It's modest. The Supreme Court is the entity that so drastically reversed precedent.

"Previously, every check after a discriminatory pay decision was considered an instance of discrimination. This makes a lot of sense, since the impact of pay discrimination is felt every single time you get a check with less money than you deserve. But the Court's ruling reverses this familiar and sensible rule and makes it practically impossible for people subject to pay discrimination to protect their rights.

"At Goodyear, I didn't know anything about what the other male managers were making until I got an anonymous note telling me about their salaries. I went right into the EEOC after that to protest the discrimination, but according to the Supreme Court, I got the information I needed too late.

"It wasn't till I filed the case that I got a full picture of just how much less I was making. At the end of my career with Goodyear, I was earning about $3700 per month, which is about 20 percent less than the lowest paid male supervisor in the same position.

"This simply wasn't fair. But the Supreme Court believes that people like me should have to live with continuing discrimination if they don't immediately challenge it.

"That rule doesn't reflect American values. And it doesn't value Americans' opinions either. Poll after poll has shown that equal pay for equal work continues to be the highest priority women's issue around.

"This is the week of Equal Pay Day, on which we highlight the continuing pay disparities between men and women. Without the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, we could be looking at continuing discrimination against women and minorities, seniors and Americans with disabilities. That is simply too high a price to pay.

"The Senate has a chance to do what the House did last summer and rectify a great wrong. The Senate should make it plain in the law that each check after a discriminatory pay decision counts as an instance of discrimination. That rule would recognize that pay decisions are made in secret, that salaries are not widely known, and that the cumulative effect of pay discrimination can be great if it goes unnoticed. And it would restore the ability for average Americans to remedy discrimination. If we're serious about making equal pay a reality, this is a critical first step."

Six months ago today, Lilly Ledbetter, now 71 years old, saw her dream come true. President Barack Obama had this to say upon the signing of the bill on January 29, 2009. (photo of bill signing. Ledbetter is directly behind President Obama)

President Obama: "It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act - we are upholding one of this nation's first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness.

"It is also fitting that we are joined today by the woman after whom this bill is named - someone Michelle and I have had the privilege of getting to know for ourselves. Lilly Ledbetter didn't set out to be a trailblazer or a household name. She was just a good hard worker who did her job - and did it well - for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for the very same work. Over the course of her career, she lost more than $200,000 in salary, and even more in pension and Social Security benefits - losses she still feels today.

"Now, Lilly could have accepted her lot and moved on. She could have decided that it wasn't worth the hassle and harassment that would inevitably come with speaking up for what she deserved. But instead, she decided that there was a principle at stake, something worth fighting for. So she set out on a journey that would take more than ten years, take her all the way to the Supreme Court, and lead to this bill which will help others get the justice she was denied. "

Lily Ledbetter, who spoke at the National Democratic Convention in August of 2008, has not rested on her laurels. A much sought after speaker, she continues to be a tireless advocate for fair pay and non-discrimination. Alabama Public Service Commissioner Dr. Susan Parker, who has had the pleasure of meeting Ledbetter on numerous occasions had the following to say about this remarkable woman: "What makes Lilly Ledbetter a hero is not a moment of courage but years and years of courageous fortitude—not just guts but determination. She never, never, never gave up. She would not take no for an answer. And she did all of this for absolutely no personal gain for herself. Because of her perseverance, women who have been discriminated against will forevermore benefit. "

Parker also told  this story about Lilly Ledbetter. One morning Ledbetter was at breakfast at a hotel in Washington, DC, reading the Wall Street. Journal. The waitress noticed that Ledbetter's picture was in the newspaper and asked, "Isn't that you?" Lilly said that it was. The waitress said, "I've read about you. Thank you for what you are doing" And then the two waitresses paid for her breakfast. Lilly tried to say that her breakfast was already paid for by the people to whom she was speaking, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. Later when she was leaving her room all the housekeeping staff lined up in the hallway to shake her hand. Ledbetter said, "They all got a hug."

Lilly Ledbetter resides in Jacksonville in Calhoun County, Alabama, which is also the home town of Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Bragg.


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