Yesterday, at a White House signing ceremony for the law that bears her name, Lilly Ledbetter looked proud. She should be.
After nearly 20 years of work at Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Alabama, Ledbetter discovered that her male co-workers were being paid more than she earned. They did the same job she did, but the men made more money, in some cases 40% more than Ledbetter was earning. It was a classic case of discrimination and Ledbetter filed a lawsuit which asked Goodyear to make amends. In keeping with federal law of the day, the courts eventually awarded Ledbetter $300,000 in damages, plus back pay for the last two years of discrimination. That's as much as one can receive for an equal-pay lawsuit. It includes no back-pay for missed pension contributions or Social Security benefits. But Ledbetter was happy. Justice had been served.
Until Goodyear appealed the case (and the chutzpah of that is just astonishing). Their argument? The statute of limitations on Ledbetter's claim ran out 18 months after the discrimination began. Of course, Lilly Ledbetter didn't discover the discrimination until 19 years into her employment at Goodyear and so she, and her lawyers, confidently argued that such an interpretation of the statute was unreasonable. The law had never been interpreted that way before. But in 2007, with two Bush appointees on the bench, the Supreme Court made a sharp departure from the previous understanding of the law. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court sided with Goodyear. Lilly Ledbetter was told that she should have filed her case 19 years ago, when Goodyear first began to violate the equal pay for equal work laws.
Never mind that Ledbetter didn't know back then that she was being treated unjustly. According to the Court, Ledbetter didn't have a claim.
The Democratic majority in Congress immediately took action to make the equal pay statue crystal clear. The new provision provided that the statute of limitation starts ticking anew each time an employee receives a paycheck in which there is an equal pay disparity. Congress didn't change the amount of money an employee could receive (that remains capped at $300,000 and two years worth of back pay....no matter how long the discrimination continued). The bill passed in the House but was defeated in the Senate by a Republican filibuster.
This month the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act came before Congress again. This time, it was passed by the House and Senate. And yesterday, President Obama made it the first bill he signed into law. Lilly Ledbetter was there to see it happen.
Nina Totenberg of NPR tells more of the story ----- a 5 minute listen that is well-worth your time. But let me conclude by saying this is just why I voted for President Obama, who seems to have a very keen understanding of the phrase, "and justice for all."