Outside editorial: Moving toward equal pay for equal work

Posted: Thursday, May 08, 2008

U.S. workers were the losers when the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act recently died in the Senate.

The measure would have restored a common-sense deadline allowing employees to sue for pay discrimination whenever they become aware of it. The bill was named for a woman who lost her discrimination claim last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had not filed her lawsuit in time.

Employees should get equal pay for equal work. No one should get less money because of their sex, race, age, religion or national origin. This is what Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates. Ledbetter worked for a Goodyear Tire plant in Gadsden, Ala., for almost 20 years. An area manager, she earned $44,724 a year in 1997, less than the lowest paid man at that level. Unfortunately, she didn't discover the pay disparity until she was about to retire.

That's not unusual. Most businesses don't publicly post salaries. Companies that knowingly break the law generally keep the evidence hidden. How can anyone sue without proof of pay disparity?

The Supreme Court, however, said that employees cannot sue over unfair pay unless they do so within 180 days of the first violation. The court's logic is at best tortured. Its message to employers: You can discriminate on pay as much as you want as long you can get away with it for six months after the first unfair check. This comes at a time when U.S. women earn just 77 cents on average for every dollar earned by men.

Critics of the bill said it would generate lawsuits. That argument is patently absurd.

Actually, the bill would restore the long-established legal practice and sensible interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that governed before last year's Supreme Court ruling. That is, each time a woman like Ledbetter gets a paycheck that is less than that of men in the same job, the clock starts ticking on the 180-day deadline for filing a lawsuit.

The Supreme Court took away the $360,000 in back pay and damages a court had awarded Ledbetter. The lower salary also meant that she got less in pension, Social Security and other benefits. That an employee discovers an ongoing discrimination years after the bias started should be more reason, not less, for seeking redress.

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