The Mikulski Fair Pay Bill, 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and You

Yesterday Senate Democrats introduced another “Fair Pay Bill” into the Senate with the support of President Obama, as reported by the Associated Press. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would greatly extend the protections of the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and force employers to better track discriminatory pay inequalities by gender and provide greater justifications for such pay differences. While the probable passage of the new bill is slight, this new proposal does highlight the continuing issues facing many women in the workforce who continue to be paid less then men for the same work.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that threw out a pay equality case by Lily Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at Goodyear for over 19 years. Six months before she retired in 1998, she filed suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she was paid significantly less than her male colleagues for the same work: at the time she retired she was the only female area manager at her plant and made $3,727 a month. The lowest paid male area manager in comparison made $4,286 a month and the highest paid $5,236 a month. This pay discrepancy carried over and affected her employer’s 401(k) contributions, her social security benefits eligibility and her overtime pay, causing her to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation over her 19 years. When the case was brought to the Supreme Court, the Court did not question the fact that she was paid less than comparable male workers. They did even question the fact that this may have been due to sex discrimination. The Court threw out the case because it interpreted the statute of limitations provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as barring her complaint because she waited too long to file after she discovered she was being paid less than her male colleagues. Ledbetter discovered the pay discrepancy in 1992, but only filed suit six months before she retired, in 1998. According to the court, that barred her claim, as the 180 days statute of limitations had already tolled in 1993.
The Court’s decision was met with disbelief by Republicans and Democrats alike, and President Obama’s first signed act of Congress on January 29 just 9 days after his inauguration, was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. This Act set the tolling start date for the statute of limitations for a claim of pay equality as 180 days after any discrete act of pay equality discrimination. The Act defines a discriminatory act as not being limited to the first decision to discriminate; any subsequent act based on that discrimination would re-set the statute of limitations clock. As such, in Ledbetter’s case, every single new paycheck issued was a new act of discrimination and her claim would have been barred at the earliest 180 days after her last paycheck at Goodyear, into late 1999.
This Act has revolutionized the filing of pay equality claims under Title VII. This Act finally recognizes that for women who have been denied equal payment for equal work, every single paycheck is another act of unlawful discrimination. This Act also creates an incentive for employers to investigate every claim of pay inequality, no matter how long a woman has worked on the job, because they will be liable up to 180 days after the worker’s last check. Many women are not aware of the added protections of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and so regardless of whether the Mikulski Bill passes or not, they should still become more informed about the existing protections afforded to women who are paid less for equal work.

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