Supreme Court Steps Backward in Gender Wage Discrimination Ruling

On May 29, 2007 the Supreme Court ruled to uphold a time limitation in which an employee can sue their employer over wage discrimination. As if women need more discouragement from reporting wage discrimination, the court voted 5 to 4 against Lily Ledbetter, a female supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, and her claims that she had been paid substantially less than male supervisors over her 19 year career with Goodyear. Since Ledbetter did not sue for discrimination within 180 days of the first occurrence of an alleged injustice, she was unable to collect on the $3.5 million she had initially been awarded by a jury in her favor.
The 180 day period stipulation comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Undoubtedly at that time in history, regardless of the limitation, it was a step forward in narrowing the wage gap and discouraging discrimination. However, in 2007, the 180 day period given to employees is a step backwards in terms of basic human rights and equality.
In 1998, Ledbetter first brought her suit to court when, on the verge of retirement, she was tipped off by an anonymous letter that detailed the salaries of workers at her plant. Though Ledbetter’s salary had started off the same as her male counterparts, she received smaller raises and over time the wage gap grew. Despite filing a complaint well within the 180 day period after finding out, that was nearly two decades too late in the eyes of the Court.
In December 2006, IWPR released a briefing paper entitled The Best and Worst State Economies for Women. The Institute found that in no state does the typical full-time woman worker earn as much as the typical full-time man worker. The paper also projected that at the present rate of progress it will take 50 years for women to achieve earnings parity with men nationwide.
Considering IWPR’s findings that women still earn substantially less than men on average, perhaps it is ultimately in the best interest of all women to file a claim of wage discrimination within the first 180 days of time at their job. As seen through IWPR’s research, statistically, the odds of a wage discrimination suit would be in women’s favor. Apparently, waiting until one has evidence of such claims is taking action too late.
In all seriousness, the 180 day period is a restriction that makes little sense. In her case, Ledbetter made a valid claim that every paycheck should mark the start of a new 180 day period. This claim is legitimate, especially since wage gaps tend to widen over time with salary raises, as hers did. Also, realistically, if an employer doesn’t want an employee to know they’re being discriminated against, are we really that naïve to think they don’t have ways of hiding it? In fact, many employers have employees sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from discussing their salaries with coworkers. Thus, it can take years for this sort of injustice to be revealed like it was for Ledbetter.
Decreasing the wage gap in the United States has been a slow, tedious process thus far. This ruling only adds to the silencing of women and their rights within the workforce. Enduring setbacks like this comes at a cost women in this country can’t afford.
To find out what you can do to help narrow the wage gap and support pay equity in the United States, visit the National Committee on Pay Equity’s website for more information. You can also go to The Wage Project’s website to determine if you are a victim pay inequity and if so, what to do about it.
For more information on the case of Ledbetter vs. the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., go to the Supreme Court website or to read the transcript in pdf format.
Jill Hindenach

Wake Up Call

Dr. Hartmann Speaks on Work/Family Policy

The Economic Policy Institute’s forum entitled “Getting Real About Families,” which began bright and early at 7:30 AM, was an invigorating wake-up call to the need for employment reform in the United States, including minimum standards to accommodate working families.
The keynote speaker, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, challenged the audience to think boldly about solutions to the multi-faceted problems facing the American workforce. While DeLauro was realistic in her thinking about these issues, she remained optimistic and was not hesitant to hope for the possibility of dramatic, positive change in the near future. She emphasized that the U.S. is far behind its peers in accommodating labor laws; the U.S. does not require employers to guarantee paid sick leave or paid parental leave for employees. As she discussed her participation in the recent Children’s Summit and convincingly pledged to continue fighting for reform, she urged listeners to join her efforts.
Dr. Heidi Hartmann, President of IWPR, followed DeLauro’s rousing speech with startling statistics and a hopeful outlook. She outlined the three components of her policy program: subsidized child and elder care, paid care giving leave, and greater flexibility on the job. The program calls for both income replacement and job security. What we found most astounding was her finding (from IWPR’s research) that if women (and minority men) were paid equally half of poverty would be reduced.
Although Dr. Hartmann agreed that the U.S. is far behind other countries in their labor policies and that “what we need is everything,” she acknowledged the important contribution of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to the international labor policy conversation. The FMLA is a very important workplace benefit for families, and is a step toward making the work/life balance easier. However, it is of limited value to workers who cannot afford to go without a paycheck. While the FMLA is in need of reform and extension, it does bring ideas of universality and equality to the forefront by applying to women and men alike. Despite its lack of pay, it does help workers significantly by requiring employers to provide one thing that only they can provide, a guaranteed job to come back to after a period away from work on family leave.
Janet C. Gornick, director of the Luxembourg Income Study, concluded the panel with comparisons of U.S. labor policies to those of other countries. According to Gornick, America’s public policy is failing working parents and their families. For example, the United States is one of only five countries in the entire world that does not have federally guaranteed paid maternity leave; the other four are Australia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho (and Australia has recently added a lump sum payment of about $5,000 to each family who has a child, which some observers consider a form of maternity leave). Gornick ended her presentation by reaffirming the other speakers’ assertions that gender equality is at the heart of the employment policy reform we need today.
The event painted a clear picture of where U.S. work-family policies stand and what must be done to reform them. The combination of research and enthusiastic advocates for change present at this forum reaffirmed our commitment to continued work for reform.
Krystal Lechner and Karen Spitzfaden