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Fair Play: Lilly Ledbetter’s Story and Workplace Discrimination

Lily Ledbetter has a story to tell. In fact, you may have already heard it. They’ve been telling it in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in corporate boardrooms, in newspapers, and on televisions across the nation. I would even hazard a guess that at least one book or movie in the next couple of years is going to retell her story all over again.

At a time when newspapers and magazines are imploding and the jump-cut, get-to-the-point Internet age is in full swing, Ledbetter’s clear and powerful story, along with her continued efforts to share it, seem to be proof that stories are still our most effective means of understanding and gaining new information about the world. Her story has brought a resurgence of political interest in an issue that has festered for the better part of the last century, not just in the halls of Washington or in her home state of Alabama, but also right here in New York.

In 1979, Ledbetter took a job at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Gadsden, Alabama. At the beginning of her career there, despite being the only woman in her position, Ledbetter was given the same starting salary as her male colleagues. Over the next 19 years she not only gained new skills and experience in her supervisory role, she also helped to train a number of new hires, all men. In 1996 she received a “Top Performer” award for her contribution to the company.

In 1998 things changed. Ledbetter was 59, but not planning to retire soon; she hoped to work “at least until I was 62, if not 65.” In March of that year someone left an anonymous note for her listing her salary and that of three of her male colleagues with the same job title as her. The men listed on the paper were drawing monthly salaries 15 percent to 40 percent higher than hers. “The next day I had off, I filed my complaint with the E.E.O.C.”—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—“it was a humiliating situation,” she said.

The reason for the disparity, despite having started at the same salary as the others, is that over time she had been receiving smaller raises and bonuses than the men. Ledbetter was not only denied dollars in her paycheck, but also in the company’s contributions to her pension and retirement accounts, which were a percentage of her salary. The cumulative effect of years of this kind of discriminatory pay amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages and benefits.

As in many other companies and organizations in the United States, employees at Goodyear were prohibited from sharing information about their pay with other workers. Without that anonymous tip, Ledbetter would have risked her job in trying to obtain information about any discrimination.

Not long after she filed her complaint with the E.E.O.C., Goodyear announced that they would be closing the Gadsden, Alabama plant—an event that never came to pass. The company did, however, decide to cut a number of jobs at the plant. In the process Ledbetter says that she was “forced into early retirement,” accepting a buyout package that she described as “detrimental" to her family.

In November of 1998, Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against Goodyear, claiming pay discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The lawsuit went to her local District Court, where, at trial, Ledbetter alleged she had received poor evaluations because of her sex, which resulted in lower raises and, over the long-term, significantly lower pay than her male colleagues. Goodyear claimed that the evaluations had not been discriminatory. The jury found in favor of Ledbetter, awarding her back pay and damages totaling over $3 million.

Goodyear then appealed the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on the grounds that the discrimination that formed the basis of Ledbetter’s complaint took place well beyond 180 days prior to her claim—the time period in which a complaint must be filed according to Title VII. The Eleventh Circuit court, a notoriously conservative court, sided with Goodyear, and stripped Ledbetter of the money awarded in the previous trial.

Ledbetter then appealed to the Supreme Court, where her case was argued in November 2006. A fact missing in most of the reports surrounding the trial is that the Bush administration took an active role in this case, submitting a brief on behalf of Goodyear that disavowed the E.E.O.C.’s long-standing precedent of allowing the 180-day period to reset after each discriminatory paycheck was sent: the precedent upon which Ledbetter’s lawyers were relying. Not only did the Bush administration submit a brief in this case, but one of the president’s lawyers was given 10 minutes out of Goodyear’s 30-minute argumentation period.

On May 29, 2007 Justice Samuel Alito delivered the 5-judge majority opinion, finding in favor of Goodyear. Alito’s opinion struck down years of EEOC precedent, stating that continuing to pay an employee at a discriminatory rate does not constitute continued discrimination.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion. Her opinion was clear and pointed: “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination. Title VII was meant to govern real-world employment practices, and that world is what the court today ignores.” She ended her opinion with a similar thought to the one she presented after the court voted to uphold an anti-abortion law: “Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court. As in 1991, the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.

Taking up Ginsburg’s call only hours after it was made, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, still embroiled in her race for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced her intention to submit a bill to Congress to eliminate the statutory rule that stood in the way of employees like Ledbetter filing successful discrimination complaints. The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed in the House in July of 2007. However, in April of this year Senate Republicans voted to block the measure despite numerous impassioned speeches from the floor, including two by Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here in New York, a new energy has developed around the issue of fair pay—an issue that many thought would have been resolved after the passing of laws like Title VII in the 1960s. In 2007, the New York Women’s Agenda formed an Equal Pay Coalition in New York City, they held a panel discusssion called “Fair Pay: The Time is Now" in November where Ledbetter spoke. As part of the discussion, the forum highlighted some rather disturbing statistics. According to a study by The Wage Project, while a wage gap exists across the board for women, women with bachelors or higher degrees experience the greatest disparities—men with professional degrees earn over 80% more than women with the same degrees. At the other end of the spectrum, the New York Women’s Foundation’s report on The Economic Status of Women in New York State revealed that women in New York are more likely than women in the rest of the U.S. to live in poverty. Women head 57.5% of families living below the poverty line, and for women over the age of 65, less than one in three have any pension income.

The coalition has proposed a variety of actions to counter these grim numbers. In addition to supporting the Ledbetter Act, they are seeking more aggressive legislation at the federal and state level to achieve pay equity—making sure that jobs that have similar requirements are paid similarly and that employers use consistent tools to evaluate those jobs.

In a room filled primarily with women of the generations that helped to put the original civil rights legislation on the books in the 60s and were among the first to bump against the glass ceiling, it was hard not to feel some skepticism about the effectiveness of new legislation. While laws do provide an important tool in the fight against discrimination, if the culture doesn’t change then reinforcement of those laws will always be subject to the dominant ideology—as in Ledbetter’s Supreme Court case.

One of the forum panelists, Donna Pedro, the Chief Diversity Officer for the advertising agency Ogilv & Mather, noted that the primary way change occurs inside companies is when leadership understands that attracting and retaining talented women and minorities is a beneficial business strategy and that pay is the primary tool used to keep good employees. That’s clearly a strategy that Goodyear failed to recognize. During the forum, Ledbetter revealed that she’d recently participated in a conference call with some 40 corporate leaders, once again using her story to effect change. While many of those leaders will view her tale as cautionary and look for ways to avoid lengthy and expensive lawsuits, others might—like Pedro—understand that rewarding “Top Performers” benefits the company, the employee and their families at the same time that it helps to eliminate one of the most persistent inequities in our society today.

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Alexis Clements

Alexis Clements is a playwright based in Brooklyn. A workshop of her show-in-progress, Spitting Against the Wind, will be presented at Dixon Place on March 31. Learn more at alexisclements.com.