Equal Work, Unequal Pay

A Q&A with Lilly Ledbetter, at 70 a powerful symbol in the fight against pay discrimination.

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Seventy-year-old Lilly Ledbetter lost an important gender pay-equity case before the U.S. Supreme Court almost a year ago. But the former supervisor for an Alabama Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant is still a champion for the equal-pay cause. "Miss Lilly" came to Washington this week to push for a Senate measure to ease restrictions on suing employers for pay discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or national origin. The House already has passed the measure in the wake of the 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling, which said that employees must file a formal complaint within 180 days of an employer's initial decision to pay them less than what they think is fair. Ledbetter, who left Goodyear in 1998, sued the company only later; before leaving the plant, she'd received an anonymous note informing her that she made less than her male counterparts.

The measure, now in the Senate, would extend the deadline for filing a complaint. It would have each discriminatory paycheck trigger a new claim-filing period, that is, another 180-day window in which to file a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Observers think the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will face tough sailing in the Senate. Meantime, the White House has threatened a veto.

Ledbetter spoke Wednesday with U.S. News:

You earned $3,727 a month—15 percent less than the lowest-paid male area manager and 40 percent less than the highest-paid area manager. What was your reaction when the Supreme Court decision came down? The court basically said, "You waited too long to complain. You're out of luck."

The Supreme Court said that an individual like myself should have complained after the first paycheck that I got that was discriminatory, even though I had no way of knowing. I had no suspicion at that time, none whatsoever. And 180 days is only six months. And a lot of times that is in the beginning of your employment and you don't want to make waves. You don't want to be known as a troublemaker. A jury in a lower court initially awarded you $3.8 million, which the judge reduced to $360,000. Now, will you ever see a dime?

My case is over, I'm sad to say. [She adds that her salary affected her retirement benefits, including pension, a 401(k) plan, and Social Security.] So the way I understand it, I was treated like a second-class citizen for my 19 years and 10 months at Goodyear—as well as into my retirement. Is receiving less in the twilight of your life a hardship or a sore point?

It's a big hardship. I'm not bitter, but it is very hard because we live 150 miles round trip from Birmingham where my husband [Charles] has most of his cancer [treatments] and surgeries. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision, what was your reaction?

I was very disappointed. I really felt that we would get Justice Clarence Thomas [to take my side]. He's an African-American, and he's from Georgia, was raised in the South. He came up the hard way, so to speak, and I understand, too, at one time he worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a strongly worded dissent, said that the court's majority did not comprehend or was indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination. She pointed out that pay information is often hidden from an employee's view.

That's right. Goodyear gave instructions when I hired in: "You do not discuss your pay." There were two things that I was required to do: that was to give my fair share to the United Way campaign, being a salaried person, and the other was not to discuss my salary with anyone outside my family. Did you ever ascertain who left the note showing you were being paid less than male supervisors?

No, I have no idea. Do you have a sense why this person acted?

It was just something that I probably needed to know, which I did. What was your reaction when you saw the note?

I was shocked. I lost my composure. I had to go into the ladies' lounge and sit down because it was just like falling; you look around and see who's looking at you.