President Obama signed his first piece of legislation into law today. It was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which will increase workers ability to sue for past pay discrimination.
As the New York Times reports, Lilly Ledbetter may not get her money from Goodyear, but a law in her name has changed the playing field for employees looking to recover for discriminatory pay. In 1998, Lilly Ledbetter sued the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, where she had worked for almost twenty years, because Goodyear allegedly paid her less over time than it paid men holding similar titles and performing the same work. Her case drew much attention when the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that she could not recover for her discriminatory pay because she filed her claim too late.
The key issue was when someone must sue if they claim discriminatory pay under Title VII, which protects employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Ledbetter needed to have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of when she first started being paid disproportionately. Since she filed her claim many years after that, she was out of luck.
The problem was that Ms. Ledbetter didn't learn that her male colleagues were paid much more than she was paid until she was approaching retirement, many years after the pay discrimination began. To Obama, and to the legislation's supporters, the Supreme Court's interpretation of the law was out of touch with realities of the American workplace, making it practically impossible to recover for pay discrimination which may go years unnoticed.
Enter the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. What it does is reset the clock every time an employee gets paid. For example, let's say someone's discriminatory pay began 20 years ago, and their pay remained discriminatorily low all the way through last week's paycheck. Under the old interpretation, the clock to sue started twenty years ago, and expired 180 days (or 300 in some states) after that. Under the new law, the clock to sue restarts each time the employee gets paid, on the theory that the employee's pay this week is informed by the discrimination that has kept their pay unfairly low for years.
At the signing ceremony, Obama paid homage to Ms. Ledbetter, and placed her story in the larger context of American working economy. The Washington Post quoted him as saying:
"So in signing this bill today, I intend to send a clear message: That making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone. That there are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it's not just unfair and illegal - but bad for business - to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook - it's about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives: their ability to make a living and care for their families and achieve their goals."
Ms. Ledbetter will still not get back the money Goodyear owes her. The new law takes effect for all claims pending on or after May 28, 2007. But her case changed the playing field for people seeking to recover for past discriminatory pay.