TAP Talks with Lilly Ledbetter

Of all the appalling decisions the Roberts Court issued last year, one of the worst was the 5-4 ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which gutted the equal-pay provisions of the Civil Rights Act and overturned a decades-old employment-law precedent.

The plaintiff, Lilly Ledbetter, worked for nearly two decades at a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Alabama. She brought an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against Goodyear after she discovered that for years she had been paid less than male co-workers with the same job. The justices ruled that employees can only file a wage-discrimination complaint within 180 days of when the payroll decision was made.

After the Supreme Court issued its decision, which leaves women and minorities in Ledbetter's situation with no recourse, congressional Democrats pledged to pass legislation that would give employees two years to file a complaint, in accordance with the law before the Supreme Court issued its decision. The Senate is considering the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act this week, and TAP talked with Ledbetter, who was in Washington to push for the bill's passage.

How did you finally find out how much your male co-workers were making?
The only way that I really knew was that someone left an anonymous note in my mailbox showing my pay and the pay for the three males who were doing the same job, just on different shifts. Until then, I had no proof. I'd hear people talking about how much they were making when that individual and myself were splitting someone else's shift, and I knew mine wasn't near theirs, but I had no proof. Until I got that scrap of paper. And I went immediately to EEOC.

Did you ever find out who left you the note?
No, I didn't. I'd be afraid to guess. But whoever it is, I'd like to thank them. When I saw the difference in the amount of money I was paid, I could not let Goodyear get away with it. I had to stand up.

How did you know your rights? What led you to sue?
There's a lot of publicity about EEOC and your rights, and I knew I was a lone female in a male-dominated factory. When I saw that note, it just floored me. I was so shocked at the amount of difference in our pay for doing the same exact job. When we got into the case, I was more shocked to see what all the other people were making, too. They all had much greater pay than I, and most had less seniority, less experience. And I worked there for 20 years. I was a good employee, and I worked hard; there was nothing I couldn't do.

What advice would you give working women when it comes to getting the wages they deserve?
It's a very difficult thing to do anything about. For one thing, if you're one of very few women working in a job, if you rock the boat or ask a question, they say you're a troublemaker. I'd been in meetings where higher people in my plant would say, "We don't need women in this factory," but they knew the law required them to have some. I sat through those meetings, and I was discriminated against because I did my job and I liked my job, and I was good at it.

Women need to observe, pay attention, be alert. And if possible, have a mentor to help them along the way. If they get any written proof of discrimination, they need to hold onto it. But it's difficult if a corporation goes into it knowing they're going to discriminate.

Is that what was happing at Goodyear?
I don't know. When I first learned, I thought it was just a Southern "good old boy" policy. But I've since learned this is national. It's a civil-rights issue.

What do you say to people who claim that the wage gap is not due to discrimination, it's just that women choose lower-paid work and drop out of the work force to raise children?
No! No, no, no, no. I have had my eyes opened up a great deal being involved in this. I filed my charge in 1998; I've been working with this situation since that time. I have correspondence [from people in similar situations] from all over the United States. I was born and reared in Alabama, and I thought this was just a Southern problem. But it's not -- it's a national problem. It doesn't only affect line workers like I was but professional people like doctors and university professors. It's not right, and it's high time for women to be paid equal.

I've had correspondence from women who work two jobs and still can't make ends meet because they aren't paid as well as men. When you carry the responsibility of a job and do your duties, you should be paid and compensated accordingly. I worked for a company that told me, "You do not discuss wages with anyone in this factory." You're very limited when working for a corporation that has those rules, because no one is going to stand around and discuss what they're making.

In my case, the money I should have been compensated hurt me, because my retirement was based on what I earned. So that was much lower. I'm like a second-class citizen for the rest of my life. I will never be compensated for my lower wages and my pension, and Social Security wages are much lower, because Goodyear paid me less.

But if I can help support and get this bill passed for others, for all discrimination protection, it'll help our daughters, our granddaughters in the future. And I am so grateful the bill has already passed the House, and I'm hoping it'll pass the Senate.

So you expect the legislation to pass?
We hope so. I've just heard so many stories. It's a heart-wrenching situation. There are a lot of highly qualified women, and they work hard, right alongside those men.

The Supreme Court said I had to have complained within 180 days, within six months of the first paycheck I was given. But I had no way of knowing it was discrimination. My attorney argued it should be based on the paycheck-accrual law. This bill is only going to change the law back to like it was. We've had a lot of opposition that said this would just open up a multitude of lawsuits, and it would be tough on corporations to fight these cases. But that's not true. If a person or individual thinks they have a case, they can't even go to EEOC unless they have proof. You can't just waltz into EEOC.

With equal pay, the law on the books today only allows an individual to go back two years. That's not changing. I had some folks say, "You just waited in the bushes 20 years to collect the big pay day." That's not true! I needed that money when my children were in college, and to feed them and pay the bills. After lawyers' expenses, and taxes on that, any reasonable person can see there wasn't a big bonus there. I've been in this since 1998, and I've been on this road because it's high time that people have a voice and speak up.

When is the vote?
Possibly Wednesday. I just hope we've got enough support. There are so many people out there that need this. I just turned 70 last week; this would be a great birthday gift.

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