Equal work, unequal pay

Victims of pay discrimination got no help from the Supreme Court this year. That's why Congress must act.

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Imagine you've worked for a company for 20 years. You're a good performer. But unbeknownst to you, the company puts workers over 50 on a lower salary track. At 60, you learn that for the past 10 years, you have been earning less – tens of thousands of dollars less – than colleagues doing exactly the same work.

Think you have grounds for a suit? Think again.

The Supreme Court on May 29 ruled 5-4 in Ledbetter (that's me) v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that workers don't have the right to sue for pay discrimination if they don't file a claim within 180 days after the decision is made to pay them less.

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Now Congress has the opportunity to redress this injustice. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will right this wrong. And it will have a profound impact on the working lives, and livelihoods, of Americans across the country.

This effort to bolster workers' right began in 1998 when I filed a sex discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I did so because I discovered that the Goodyear plant in Gadsen, Ala., had been paying me significantly less than it paid my male counterparts.

My salary started out comparable to the male supervisors, but over the years, unbeknownst to me, my raises were always smaller. Eventually, I learned I was earning $3,727 a month while the lowest paid of my male colleagues got $4,286 – for doing the same job.

An Alabama jury awarded me more than $3 million after finding that Goodyear had violated my rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But a federal trial judge cut that award to $360,000, then an appellate court reversed the jury's decision and so I didn't even get the $360,000.

Then, in the strangest cut of all, the Supreme Court narrowly interpreted Title VII, completely out of line with legal precedent and sided with Goodyear, arguing that I had filed the complaint too late since Title VII requires employees to file within 180 days of "the alleged unlawful employment practice."

The majority ruling apparently ignored the fact that Goodyear was still underpaying me when I filed the suit. Instead, calculating the time based on the date I received the first discriminatory paycheck, years in the past, it ruled that I had missed the deadline for redress.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme Court's only woman, took the unusual step of reading her opinion aloud. She noted that the original jury heard testimony that a supervisor who evaluated me in 1997 – an evaluation that led to denying me a pay raise – was "openly biased against women." She wrote: "Toward the end of her career ... the plant manager told Ledbetter that the "plant did not need women, that [women] didn't help it, [and] caused problems."

Substitute any category of work-er for "women" – seniors, Latinos, gays, disabled, Muslims, etc. – and you can see the impact that results from the court gutting this key civil rights protection.

While workers' and civil rights groups are lauding the Ledbetter Act, the bill has met opposition from the pro-business lobby. Neal Mellon from the US Chamber of Commerce said that many business owners didn't want to open themselves up to the liability of employees filing suits "decades later." My story shows that filing these suits decades after the initial discriminatory paycheck is often unavoidable. Each paycheck I received was an act of discrimination, regardless of the amount of time that passed.

How many workers know what their colleagues make? Do you? I certainly didn't until years after the fact. Indeed, one-third of private sector employers bar employees from discussing their wages with co-workers.

Unless Congress rights this wrong, employers can legally get away with discrimination so long as they can make it to day 181.

Lilly Ledbetter, a volunteer and mother of two, has been married for 51 years.

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