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Lilly Ledbetter, the Supreme Court, and the Ongoing Fight For Equal Pay

By: Lilli Erigero

This Labor Day, with the looming economic recession and the devastating Supreme Court overturning of Roe v Wade in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think of the intersection of labor and women’s rights. Labor has been essential to the progress of women in the United States– I would even argue that it is the incorporation of women in the workforce during the industrial revolution, work on the abolitionist movement, and the First World War is what eventually led to women’s suffrage in 1920. Labor has been the means to economic freedom, personal independence, and alternatives to domestic life and remains at the forefront of the gender equality movement.

Though labor has given women a path to financial independence or equality, labor itself is not equal. The ongoing gender-based/race-based wage gaps and exploitative labor practices in the United States demonstrates that despite having a national holiday that celebrates workers, the fight for fair labor is far from over. And one fight in particular, fought by Lilly Ledbetter, serves as a reminder of how far we have come–and how far we have to go. .

Lilly Ledbetter worked as a supervisor for Goodyear Tires for 19 years when she received an anonymous note detailing that she was making thousands of dollars less than her male coworkers in her same position, with similar or less experience and seniority. Nearing retirement and after spending many loyal years with the company, Ledbetter was appalled that her male colleagues were making 40% more than her paycheck for the same, if not more, work. She realized that over almost 20 years, the substantial financial loss between paid overtime and 401k was more than worth suing over, claiming pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 164 and the Equal Pay.

Lilly Ledbetter won her lawsuit against Goodyear but the ruling was reversed on appeal by the Eleventh Circuit. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Goodyear because Ledbetter did not file suit within 180 days from the date of the discriminatory policy, despite the paycheck itself being issued during the 180-day period. The Supreme Court failed to consider that Ledbetter was unaware of the discriminatory policy until after the 180 days and her lawyers conceded that that fact would not have made a difference in her case. In other words, the Supreme Court ruled whether the statute of limitations had expired for her to file her claim and not whether there was discrimination at play.

In the dissent, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote:

“Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. For most of those years, she worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing substantially similar work. Over time, however, her pay slipped in comparison to the pay of male area managers with equal or less seniority. By the end of 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark: Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236”

The double standard was apparent to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who understood the mechanisms of gender discrimination in the workforce, and the numbers did not lie. The discrimination was subtle and small, occuring over a long period of time–incidous and silent until it was too late. Though Goodyear attributed the pay discrepancies to Ledbetter’s poor work performance, it’s difficult to believe that a company would employ and promote an unsatisfactory employee for almost 20 years. Knowing this, Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Lilly Ledbetter to tell her story to Congress.

Though the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter in 2007, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which restarts the 180-day clock every time a discriminatory paycheck is issued. This reversed the Supreme Court’s terrible decision and ultimately protects women and all people from pay discrimination and the statue of limitations. By 2011, over 350 cases cited the act since its signing in 2009, and has been an essential step towards fair labor practices. Proud of Ledbetter’s work and the birth of the act, Ruth Bader Ginburg framed a copy of the legislation and hung it in her chambers. The story of Lilly Ledbetter is one that is not forgotten, inspiring a biographical film that is now in the early stages of production starring Academy Award Nominee and Golden Globe winner, Patricia Clarkson.

Looking back at this case in the context of Roe, I have hope as a woman and as an American. Though the Supreme Court has recently handed down disappointing and regressive rulings, it does not mean that these rulings are right nor permanent–it means we need legislators who will act and pass laws to right these wrongs.


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