Congress righted a wrong this week. Members approved a bill making it easier for U.S. workers to win pay-discrimination lawsuits, fixing a flawed 2007 Supreme Court ruling upholding an unreasonable deadline for filing a grievance.
In the presence of Lilly Ledbetter, the woman whose case the high court heard, President Obama plans to sign the measure today. It will be the first piece of legislation he signs into law.
For women, this is an important victory. Women earn only about 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. Even after controlling for hours, occupation, parenthood and other factors, studies show the gap remains.
Ledbetter's case is a prime example. The Alabama woman found out after 19 years she was making less than the lowest paid man in the same job at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant where she worked. She argued that the disparity existed for years primarily because she was a woman, and a federal jury awarded her more than $3 million. It was reduced to $300,000 but Goodyear appealed, saying the complaint was filed too late, based on decisions made earlier. The Supreme Court agreed.
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In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out the absurdity of the ruling. The 180-day window to file a claim didn't give employees enough time to discover if they've been discriminated against because pay bias is so hard to detect. Salaries are often confidential, and workers are discouraged from seeking such information. Some face job reprisals.
Until the Ledbetter case, the courts recognized that pay bias is often hidden and cumulative. The courts used “the paycheck rule,” meaning every paycheck that continued a pay inequity was subject to legal action. Congress restores that view with this legislation.
This legislation comes as women from across the state gathered in Charlotte Wednesday for the third annual N.C. Conference for Women presented by Wachovia (which has been acquired by Wells Fargo). About 1,500 women showed up to network and discuss health, the environment, race and equity, relationships – and, yes, pay and other financial issues.
The conference makes a powerful statement about the progress of women and the possibilities for even more. But women continue to face discrimination and disparities that hobble chances for success. Congress was right to step in where bias existed and was perpetuated by bad law, or a flawed interpretation of law.