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Martha Burk

Martha Burk

Posted January 28, 2009 | 06:44 PM (EST)

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Not Enough


President Obama is set to sign his first piece of legislation this week - the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. You may remember Ledbetter's case. She worked for Goodyear tire and rubber for most of her career, and found out after many years that she had been paid less than the men doing the same job all along. To add insult to injury, she had trained a couple of these guys.

The George W. Bush/ Roberts/Alito Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that though Ledbetter had indeed experienced discrimination, she was not entitled to damages because she hadn't filed her lawsuit within 180 days of that first short paycheck - never mind that she didn't discover the discrimination for more than a decade. The ruling overturned 40+ years of precedent. Up until Ledbetter v. Goodyear, courts had always ruled that a victim of wage discrimination had 180 days from the day she found out about it to file suit, and that each new short paycheck started the countdown clock over again. In passing the new bill, Congress and President Obama have restored the law to the way it has been interpreted for the last four decades.

But if you think that's the answer to women's pay inequity prayers, you're dead wrong. Just getting us back to even is not nearly enough to overcome that stubborn wage gap. Women still make only 77 cents to the dollar a man makes for full time year round work. We need more - much more. The main reason Lilly Ledbetter got shafted was that she didn't know her situation compared to the men. Employers are under no obligation to report pay statistics, and in most companies you can get fired for talking pay with co-workers. Though federal legislation to fix these two problems is in the pipeline, it's been in the pipeline for over a decade, and the light at the end is nowhere in sight.

The governor of one state - New Mexico - is not waiting. Bill Richardson (Obama's choice for commerce secretary who voluntarily dropped out of consideration) has just signed an executive order in his state that is ground breaking. Not only will the state as an employer have to study and report it's own pay practices when it comes to gender and race, so will private sector companies that want state contracts. Richardson has declared overcoming pay inequity and job segregation a priority, and established a high-powered task force to implement the needed changes.

Employers are likely to wail and gnash their teeth. Won't this cost money? Well maybe, but probably not that much. They already know who works for them, the gender and race of their employees, and how much they're paid by job category. So gathering the data ought to be relatively simple. Besides, all employers won't have to do it - just those that want state contracts, paid with dollars from taxpayers. In this day of bailouts and boondoggles at taxpayer expense, citizens footing the bills have a right to expect that any company getting government business pays its workers fairly. And there will be technical assistance and reasonable exceptions for small business.

By doing internal pay equity analyses, companies that have a problem and don't know it will be able to find out and fix it before they get hauled into court for discrimination. And if they're not doing anything wrong, they ought to be proud of it and willing to tell the world. Sure would cut down on all those "frivolous lawsuits" if employees could see the statistics up front and know they weren't being shorted in the pay envelope.

Congress did the right thing by bringing us back to a 40 year old standard when it fixed Ledbetter. But the State of New Mexico is way ahead of the curve, looking forward, not backward. Women should challenge the other 49 governors to follow suit, particularly one self-described "feminist" who can see Russia from her house.