Activist chronicles fight for equal pay

Obama signs Lilly Ledbetter bill into law

BY Lori Anne Oliwa Correspondent

Lilly Ledbetter, standing against a backdrop of the Capitol Building, waged a 10-year battle to secure the right to equal pay for equal work for women. Lilly Ledbetter, standing against a backdrop of the Capitol Building, waged a 10-year battle to secure the right to equal pay for equal work for women. She is the face of equality, her story personifying the struggle of generations of women in their war on gender-based pay discrimination.

She was the second woman to dance with President Barack Obama at the inaugural Neighborhood Ball and one of the few chosen to make the symbolic journey from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., on the inaugural train.

She not only embodies the battle cry “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” but has stepped out of the shadows to succeed in her own journey to the hallowed halls of Congress.

Lilly Ledbetter, a former manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala., chronicled her decade-long fight in addressing gender-based pay inequities, as keynote speaker at the American Association of University Women of New Jersey’s “Achieving Pay Equity” conference, held recently at Brookdale Community College.

“I am appalled that we are still fighting,” Ledbetter said in her address. “When my fight began, I thought that pay inequities were an issue only in the South, a ‘Southern epidemic,’ so to speak, but I know now that the problem is national. Nobody wants to be the poster child for unequal pay for equal work, but that’s what happened to me.”

Lilly Ledbetter testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee in support of the bill banning gender-based pay discrimination. Lilly Ledbetter testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee in support of the bill banning gender-based pay discrimination. Ledbetter was an accomplished manager at Goodyear for almost 20 years and received top performance awards. Nearing retirement in 1998, she received an anonymous note informing her that she had been paid much less than virtually all of her male co-workers over the years. The male with the least seniority, considerably less than she had, was making about $1,000 per month more than Ledbetter. The most senior of the men — and the closest in seniority to her — was making about $2,000 per month, or 45 percent, more than she was.

Ledbetter noted at the conference that Goodyear had a strict policy prohibiting employees from discussing salaries with other employees.

“If you spoke about your pay with anyone other than your family, you would not work there anymore,” she said.

The very next day after receiving the note, Ledbetter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and she subsequently filed a lawsuit.

In January 2003 the case was heard in court, resulting in a winning jury verdict of $3.8 million in back pay and punitive damages. “Unfortunately, that good moment didn’t last very long,” Ledbetter said.

The trial judge, because of damage caps in Title VII, was forced to reduce the award to $300,000. Goodyear appealed the case, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals nullified the award.

In May 2007 Ledbetter’s case reached the United States Supreme Court.

Commenting on her decision to keep fighting, Ledbetter said, “I just couldn’t let Goodyear get away with it. I did a good job and managed my people well. They said I was a poor worker, even though the company kept me for 19 years.”

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices reversed the entire award.

“The court said I should have complained every time I got a smaller raise than the men, even if I didn’t know what the men were getting paid and even if I had no way to prove the decision was discriminatory,” Ledbetter said.

According to literature provided by the Business & Professional Women of New Jersey, historical case law regarded pay discrimination as ongoing, with each new paycheck a new act of discrimination. According to law, the plaintiff must sue within 180 days of the discrimination. Ledbetter met that deadline, if the law would have counted each paycheck as an act of discrimination.

The Supreme Court decision on May 29, 2007, ruled that Ledbetter should have filed her lawsuit within 180 days of the original decision to discriminate. Under that interpretation, Ledbetter would have had to file her lawsuit six months after she was hired.

“I won’t lie to you: I was pretty devastated. But instead of taking it quietly, I decided to fight back,” she said.

Ledbetter has been instrumental in the passage of two key bills in Congress that address the issue of gender-based pay inequality and assist in reversing the effect of the Supreme Court decision.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, co-sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (12th District), passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 9 by a vote of 247-171. The bill ensures that employees subject to such discrimination will have the opportunity to challenge every discriminatory paycheck that they receive. The bill passed the U.S. Senate on Jan. 22 by a vote of 61-36, according to information provided by AAUW.

“This has been a life-changing fight for me, my life’s work,” said Ledbetter.

She stated that Obama had promised to sign the legislation, and he indeed did on the morning of Jan. 29, the first signed bill of his presidency.

Ledbetter was there for the signing along with a plethora of prominent women from organizations that lobbied hard for its passage.

“We must level the playing field and ensure fair opportunities for women in education and in the workplace,” Holt said in a prepared statement. “The wage gap is not just a women’s issue, it’s a family issue. When women earn less for equal work, families are forced to do more with less. Affording all of life’s expenses is hard enough. It should not be made harder as a result of women being shortchanged on payday,” he added.

Conference attendees were clearly moved by Ledbetter’s courage. Marian Wattenbarger, Fair Haven, a member of AAUW Northern Monmouth County Branch, issued a call to action.

“If you are someone who has authority, pay close attention to the salaries of your employees. You may be able to do something and correct an injustice,” she said. Wattenbarger explained that during her career, a superior approached her and told her she was underpaid.

In addition to the bill that bears Ledbetter’s name, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed a companion bill — the Paycheck Fairness Act — which will strengthen the Equal Pay Act and close the loophole that allows employers to avoid responsibility on discriminatory pay, according to a press release from Holt’s office.

“Now we must attend to the Paycheck Fairness Act,” stated Ledbetter, who explained that the measure has not passed the U.S. Senate.

Ledbetter never discovered who slipped the telltale note into her locker, the note responsible for catapulting her onto the national stage.

The 70-year-old is currently pursuing a law degree and has vowed to remain an agent of change. She believes the fight is not over yet.

“I am a living example of the fact that pay discrimination still exists,” Ledbetter said. “The situation is hitting me today and has impacted my retirement benefits, my 401(k) and my Social Security. I can never get them back, and they are gone forever.”

Though she will never benefit financially, Ledbetter rejoices in the fact that she is helping current and future generations of women get what they deserve.

“I didn’t,” she said, “but hopefully employers will be encouraged now to make changes with all the momentum.”