In a close vote of 225 to 199, today the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007. It’s not surprising that the bill passed, because it simply re-states the law as it has been interpreted for many years. What is truly shocking is that 199 members of the House voted to roll back our rights and deprive women of this longstanding remedy for pay discrimination.
While passage of the Ledbetter Act is an important first step in returning Title VII, the law against employment discrimination, to its original intention regarding remedies for pay discrimination, there are not enough votes to override a threatened veto, and the House still has much work to do to eliminate the systemic pay discrimination faced by women workers. And if this vote is a guide, the Republican leadership will be fighting it every step of the way.
The Ledbetter Act was drafted to overturn the Supreme Court’s May decision in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which dealt a near-fatal blow to underpaid workers’ ability to use the protections of civil rights laws to remedy pay discrimination.
Lilly Ledbetter had worked at Goodyear for 19 years when she discovered she was being paid significantly less than every single one of her male counterparts. A jury agreed that she had been paid unfairly, and awarded her $223,776 in back pay, and over $3 million in punitive damages, but a judge cut that to only $300,000 because of a 1991 law that limited a company’s liability for damages – even when found guilty of willful wage discrimination.
In an “off with her head” moment, the U.S. Supreme Court took away every penny of the back pay and damages awarded to Lilly Ledbetter, saying incredibly that the 180 day filing limit had begun way back when the very first paycheck showed lesser pay. Eighteen years of continuing wage discrimination against Ledbetter by Goodyear held no sway with the Roberts court.
The House legislation would return us to the longstanding rule (before the Supreme Court changed it in May), which treated each and every discriminatory paycheck as a new discrimination, thus re-starting the 180-day clock. However, this is only a partial restoration of the original intent of the civil rights law. The Ledbetter Act does not eliminate the “cap” on damages that was inserted into the law by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. By immunizing employers from any costly liability for pay discrimination – called “punitive damages” because the award is meant to truly discourage discrimination – employers gained and workers lost.
George W. Bush has already threatened to veto the legislation. Shame on him for treating fair pay for workers as a burden for employers, and completely ignoring our nation’s working women. And shame on him for stacking the court with cronies of big business.The Bush administration has bent over backwards to shelter businesses, including trying to eliminate the collection of employment data by gender, which could be used to identify and stop discrimination.
Women will be paying the price for a long time.
The Senate has a counterpart bill, the Fair Pay Restoration Act, and NOW is working with our allies in the senate to include language that eliminates the cap on damages.
House passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007 is a hopeful sign, but we must do more to preserve and protect our nation’s hard won civil rights. Women workers certainly deserve better than the 77 cents that they earn to a man’s dollar.They deserve the right to go to court when they discover they’ve been paid unfairly. They deserve a Congress and a President who will stand up for them, and a workplace that values their work equally. Every employer should do the right – and smart – thing and value their women workers. Lilly Ledbetter – and all women – want and deserve justice.