A year ago, dozens of women’s and civil rights activists gathered at the White House to watch President Barack Obama sign his first piece of legislation into law: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.
The signing was a triumphant moment — especially with its namesake, Lilly Ledbetter, standing with us. The bill restored the ability of workers to seek redress for ongoing pay discrimination and its importance to ending inequity cannot be overstated.
But another year has passed, and pay discrimination persists.
The most recent U.S. census statistics show that the pay gap between men’s and women’s earnings actually widened slightly between 2007 and 2008, from 77.8 (generally rounded to 78 percent) to 77 percent.
Based on the median earnings of full-time, year-round workers, women’s earnings were $35,745 and men’s earnings were $46,367.
The gap in median earnings for women of color is even wider. In 2008, the earnings for African-American women were $31,489, 67.9 percent of men’s earnings (a drop from 68.7 percent in 2007), and Latinas’ earnings were $26,846, 58 percent of men’s earnings (a drop from 59 percent in 2007).
In fact, if you look at the National Committee on Pay Equity’s “The Wage Gap Over Time” table, you’ll see how little the gap has changed in this century. There’s still a battle to make things right.
Lilly Ledbetter thought she had won her battle years ago. As a manager at the Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., for 19-plus years, she received the top performance award and was one of four area managers — and the only woman — selected to initiate light truck production at the Gadsden Plant.
Then, the plant was about to close. Lilly Ledbetter decided to retire. Just before she left, someone slipped her an anonymous note that compared her salary to that of three male counterparts.
Though she had always suspected pay discrimination, when she was hired she had agreed to never discuss salaries with other workers.
Until the note, she had no way of knowing she was being underpaid because of her gender.
Ledbetter filed suit. She won, but on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled against her in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber, overturning her original jury award, because she hadn’t filed a charge of discrimination within 180 days of her first discriminatory paycheck.
The court’s 2007 decision against Ledbetter reversed more than 40 years of employment law interpretation and implementation.
Although she received no monetary awards for her fight against pay discrimination, her story led to the introduction of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2007, which passed the House and Senate in January 2009 and was signed into law by the president on Jan. 29, 2009.
Lilly Ledbetter has become an icon of the movement for fair pay.
Still, the Ledbetter Act was only the first hurdle.
Passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act is the critical next step to build on the Ledbetter bill. It is comprehensive legislation that updates the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and strengthens penalties courts may impose for violations of existing equal pay laws.
It also prohibits retaliation against workers who inquire about or share wage information, a critical protection for women to be able to find out if they’re being paid fairly and to do something about it if they’re not.
While Ledbetter restored the law, Paycheck Fairness strengthens it and plugs loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act was passed by the House of Representatives alongside the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009 with more votes than even the Ledbetter Act. But action by the Senate is pending.
In these tough economic times, no one can afford to be shortchanged by pay discrimination.
But pay discrimination is more perilous now than ever, when so many more families depend on the wages of a woman to make ends meet.
In honor of Lilly, the time to speak out and take action is now.
Linda Meric is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
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