To many, the 2007 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. marked a low point for protecting women against pay discrimination in the workplace. The case held that Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff, could not hold her employer, Goodyear, accountable for pay discrimination that had occurred over many years under Title VII because her statute of limitations for such a claim had run out before she even knew about the discrimination.
The Ledbetter decision creates an absurd result. Individual pay decisions by themselves are usually small, incremental changes, not as obviously motivated by discriminatory intent the way that more serious discrete acts such as terminations or failures to promote do. It is not until many discriminatory wage decisions have occurred that the discriminatory injury becomes clear to the employee. Often, it takes many years for this pattern to develop before the employee realizes that she might have a claim.
The Ledbetter decision is inconsistent with the purposes of Title VII to both make victims of discrimination whole and to eradicate employment discriminatory practices from society at large. It leads to an absurd situation where employees must bring pay claims prematurely when they cannot be sure there has been unlawful pay discrimination. If the employee waits to a later time when there exists more substantial evidence of pay discrimination the employee will be barred from bringing the claim at all by the statute of limitations (as in Ledbetter). This inequitable state of affairs cannot stand and, it is my hope, it will be legislatively nullified.
But legislative nullification depends on both what the next Congress and President plan to do to address this glaring gap in ensuring pay equity in the workplace. Even if Congress continues to support the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Equity Act and passes it in both houses next year, the identity of the next President may determine whether that legislation is signed into law.
John McCain has stated that he is “in favor of pay equity for women, but this kind of legislation, as is typical of what’s being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle, opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems . . . . This is government playing a much, much greater role in the business of a private enterprise system.” McCain chose not to return to Washington to participate in the Senate vote on the Ledbetter bill (See Washington Post article.) Barack Obama, on the other hand, has pledged his unequivocal support for the Ledbetter bill and returned to Washington for the bill’s Senate vote in April. (See Washington Post article.)
On this Labor Day, while we praise all the workers throughout this country for their dedication and selflessness in making the United States the economic power that it is today, let us not forget that without equal wages for an equal day’s work for all members of our workforce, we really have accomplished very little. Let’s hope that regardless of who is elected president that women are no longer afforded merely second-class status in the workplace and the Ledbetter decision’s days are numbered.
About the Author: Professor Paul Secunda joined the Marquette University Law School as an associate professor of law in the summer of 2008. He teaches employment discrimination, employee benefits, labor law, employment law, civil procedure, and seminars in special education law, global issues in employee benefits, and public employment law. Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He is also the author, along with Rick Bales and Jeff Hirsch, of the treatise, Understanding Employment Law, along with Sam Estreicher and Rosalind Connor, of the case book, Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law, and of the Teacher’s Manual to the 14th Edition of the Cox, Bok, Gorman & Finkin Labor Law casebook.
Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media and has written numerous columns and op-eds for the National Law Journal and Legal Times. He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country, which is part of the Law Professors Blog Network.
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