Lilly Ledbetter worked for nearly 20 years at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. She sued her employer after learning that she was paid less than her male counterparts, despite having more experience than several of them
. A jury even found that her employer had unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of sex. However, the Supreme Court said that Ledbetter had waited too long to sue for pay discrimination, despite the fact that she filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as soon as she received an anonymous note alerting her to pay discrimination.
The Ledbetter Supreme Court decision ignored the reality of the workplace – where employees generally have no way of knowing when an employer’s initial decision to pay them less occurs. Generally, employees do not know enough about what their co-workers earn, or how pay decisions are made in order to file a complaint precisely when discrimination first occurs. Indeed, in a large proportion of American companies, salaries are confidential.
The Ledbetter decision has allowed employers to escape responsibility by keeping their discrimination hidden and running out the clock. Under the Supreme Court decision, employers have an incentive to keep discriminatory pay decisions hidden for 180 days and then never correct them. Once 180 days have elapsed, the employer can continue paying discriminatory wages to the employee for the rest of her career.
But this week Congress sought to help the Lilly Ledbetters of the world fight back against this kind of employment mistreatment. The Lilly Ledbetter Act, of which I am a cosponsor, was passed by the House on Tuesday and flew through the Senate last week. It clarifies that as long as workers file a discrimination charge within 180 days of a discriminatory paycheck, their charges would be considered timely–the law prior to the Supreme Court’s May 2007 decision.
While sadly it’s too late for Lilly to receive her due compensation, others will be helped by her cause. Lilly’s story has inspired women the world over with her courage and determination to take on the powers that be in the name of equality and justice. President Obama has stated he supports the legislation. I look forward to the day, coming very soon, when Lilly and the President get to visit in the Rose Garden following enactment of this much needed legislation.