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Ask Candidates How They Will Vote on Equal Pay Bills -- Tribute to Lilly Ledbetter: Crusader for Women's Equal Pay

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LILLY LEDBETTER
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Every woman I ask wants and expects equal pay for equal work, particularly younger women.

Yet, most are unaware of Lilly Ledbetter, her Supreme Court case and that President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act as his first bill.

Women are significant and majority voters. Jobs and the economy are key issues in the election.

Why hasn't the media focused on equal pay legislation in Congress and at the state and local levels? Why hasn't Lilly Ledbetter been featured on all the evening news, women-oriented morning and afternoon talk and Sunday public affairs shows?

Why isn't every candidate -- from presidential, to congressional, state and local officials -- asked how they will vote on equal pay legislation for women?

Equal pay for women is a family and community economic stimulus factor, not just a women's issue.

The Lilly Ledbetter Story

In 1998, after almost 20 years at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Lilly Ledbetter, 61, found an anonymous note in her mailbox with her name and the three other managers and their salaries. She was one of the first women supervisors at Goodyear. All the men were earning much more -- up to 40 percent more. When she was in high school, with grades near the top of her class, she wanted to be a lawyer, but could not afford tuition at the state university. She married her high school sweetheart at 17 in her senior year. In the next few years she had two children. Eventually, she worked part-time and then became manager of 16 offices for H&R Block.

Ledbetter read an article about Goodyear in Business Week that said women were becoming part of their new management team. Approaching 41 in 1979, she applied to the local Goodyear plant in Alabama as a production supervisor with 15 years experience. She trained in various departments and worked the night shifts, enduring sexual harassment. The only woman in management, she was offered overtime last and was excluded from management training and meetings. A typical eight-hour shift became, in real time, twelve hours, to allow for her prep and follow-up time. Significantly younger and lower-ranked male managers made substantially higher salaries for equal work.

By 1982, she called the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) office and filed a complaint, not a suit. During the investigation, she was the only one of 16 managers involuntarily transferred from a supervisory position with benefits to a physically challenging job. She was required to move 200 80-pound tires on the overnight shift. Her harassing supervisor was retained and later became her supervisor again. She won the right to sue but asked a local attorney to have her reinstated as a supervisor. Reprisals continued, including alleged life-threatening tampering with her car and other vandalism. She thereafter parked her car next to the security guard's office at the gate. In 16 years she received only a few small raises, the highest before her EEOC complaint in 1982. She became an area manager in 1985, scoring the second-highest of 45 applicants. Later she learned she was paid the minimum salary for area managers. Salaries and awards were secret and informal performance reviews were subjective. Ledbetter was told from the start that talking about salaries at Goodyear was cause for firing.

Following 19 years with Goodyear and less than a year before retirement and Social Security eligibility, she filed another EEOC complaint in 1998. She was allegedly forced to resign against her will and took an early buyout in October 1998. The next October, the EEOC issued her the right to sue for the claim. A local employment discrimination attorney agreed to represent her pro bono. It would take three years between filing the lawsuit in November 1999 and the actual trial in January 2003. Ledbetter depleted her 401(k) account to make ends meet. Goodyear stalled on document delivery. The court ordered Goodyear to produce the information. Her deposition took ten hours. After discovery ended, Goodyear filed to dismiss all claims.

Most discrimination cases are filed as a class-action suit, because it is so difficult for an individual to endure the time, money, emotional stress and repercussions to pursue it alone. The majority of cases settle out of court. Ledbetter allegedly called more than 100 people to testify on her behalf. Finally, four brave witnesses agreed to testify.

In January 2003, an Alabama federal jury of two women and five men was chosen. Pay charts showed a young man in his twenties who replaced her and started in 1994, less than ten years later was making almost double her final salary. The charts also showed her beginning salary compared with the five men she started with in 1979. The company was required by law to retain all records but the Goodyear documents disappeared. One chart showed the two lowest-paid were the only two women on the list, including Ledbetter. Documents supporting her Top Performance Award went missing.

The trial lasted three days. The Jury found that she had been paid an unequal salary because of her sex. They awarded her back pay and punitive damages of over $3 million. The judge reduced the award to $300,000. She never saw her jury award. Goodyear appealed the decision and stated than an employee must file charge within 180 days statue of limitations deadline of the first paycheck disparity. Two years after the trial, the Circuit Court of Appeals ignored court precedent and reversed the jury verdict. They agreed with Goodyear and claimed she filed too late. Goodyear sent her a bill for $3,000.00 to pay their court fees.

Supreme Injustice: More Ledbetter Decisions Against Women or Better-Led Decisions?

The Supreme Court declines the vast majority of the cases presented. The Court agreed to hear Ledbetter's appeal in November 2006. Students from the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic helped prepare the pro bono case, with support from the National Women's Law Center and the National Employment Lawyers Association.

This case shows the significance of a president's choices for Supreme Court justices and the importance of women justices. Four current Supreme Court justices are over age 70. The next president may appoint several new justices. The appointment of life-tenured judges can become a president's and Congress' most consequential legacy. The 5-4 Ledbetter decision may be a precursor of how future legislation will impact working women and our families in the future.

Six months after the hearing in May 2007 -- and nine years after Ledbetter initiated the case in 1998 -- the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that she should have filed her complaint within six months of Goodyear's first discriminating paycheck. Of course she was unaware and had been warned to never discuss salary. President George W. Bush appointed John Roberts as the new Chief Justice and replaced Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Justice Samuel Alito. He wrote the majority opinion. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then the only woman on the court, in a rare instance, read her dissent.

Ginsburg asserted the ruling did not respect Court precedent. She could relate to Lilly Ledbetter and the case for working women. Ginsburg had been pregnant with her first child in law school. Graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School in 1959, and on the Law Review, she could not get a coveted clerkship at the Supreme Court or a job as a lawyer at a law firm. She went on to win five landmark women's rights cases before the Supreme Court. In her dissent, Ginsburg explained in the real world, pay disparities occur over time and comparative pay information is not available.

Women's Pay Gap Starts With First Job

Imagine a young woman today starting a new job and immediately asking about salary comparisons. Not exactly a positive career strategy! According to a new study by the American Association of University Women, one year out of college, millennial women are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to their male peers, with the same college major and occupation. High potential women MBA graduates also lag behind men in both job level and salary, beginning from their first position post-business school and do not catch up, according to a Catalyst report. Equal pay is important for women from our first paycheck to our last Social Security check,

For almost two decades, Ledbetter had been underpaid. Now in retirement, she lost more than $240,000 in salary and benefits, plus overtime, pension and Social Security.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act protects workers from discrimination and reverses the recent Supreme Court decision. The word "Restoration" is highlighted, because too often it is omitted and it defines the purpose. The Act reinstates prior law that enables individuals subjected to pay discrimination to challenge each discriminatory paycheck as a separate act that starts a new 180-day clock, rather than the original discrimination paycheck. The bill passed the House on January 15, 2009. Two days after President Obama's inauguration, it passed the Senate. President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act as his first bill on January 29, at the White House.

If "Pro" Is The Opposite Of "Con," is Progress The Opposite Of Congress?

Senate Republicans Block Paycheck Fairness Act

The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) updates and strengthens the Equal Pay Act President John Kennedy signed in 1963. Back then, women earned 59 cents for each dollar earned by a man. In 2010, full-time white women workers made 77 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
The difference was 64 cents for Black/African-American women and 55 cents for Hispanic/Latino women. Importantly, the PFA bars retaliation against employees for inquiring about salaries and sharing information.

The PFA was passed in the House in January 2009. It was defeated in the Senate in November 2010 and again in June 2012, 52 to 47. The bill was rejected on a straight Republican party line in the Senate, falling short of the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster and did not make it to the Senate floor for debate and voting.

Gov. Mitt Romney consistently skirts the issue of equal pay legislation. Rep. Paul Ryan voted agains the Ledbetter bill.

Like most pioneer women and crusaders, Lilly Ledbetter has not benefitted personally from her lawsuit. In fact, she has spent thousands of dollars of her own money in pursuit of women's equal pay for equal work legislation. All working women are indebted to her commitment, stamina and sacrifices, on our behalf.

Ask your candidates how they will vote on equal pay for women legislation.

Lilly Ledbetter has written a book, Grace and Grit -- My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond and tells her story on Book TV.

Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for information (www.eeoc.gov).