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Pay Equity: Restoration and Improvement

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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February 5, 2009

“With this bill in place, we now can move forward to where we all hope to be — improving the law, not just restoring it.”

— Lilly Ledbetter, On the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
at the White House on 1/29/09

On January 29, 2009, I shared an amazing moment with Lilly Ledbetter as President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill he signed into law. It was a truly moving morning and the culmination of years of struggle by Ms. Ledbetter. A struggle that began at Goodyear Tire, where she worked for 19 years, overtime and double-shifts, being paid less than her male coworkers and withstanding degrading treatment. And then a struggle that continued, as she challenged the pay discrimination though a hostile appellate process that reversed decades of law that would have protected her. While she will never regain the years of wages pocketed by her discriminating employer, Ms. Ledbetter, a broad coalition of organizations, and many concerned Members of Congress worked successfully to undue the Supreme Court’s injustice for other workers.

It was an important struggle and a hard fight. Last year we could not garner enough support in the Senate to move the legislation and former President Bush threatened a veto. But we prevailed in righting this wrong. I wish I could tell you, however, that we established a new and groundbreaking anti-discrimination law. I wish I could tell you that we protected new sectors of employees, removed unfair limitations on remedies for our workers, or created new protections for a new workforce.

But I can’t. We fought for just a restoration of rights. Don’t misunderstand, however. It was a vitally important fight — one that gives all employees their day in court as long as their employer continues to discriminate against them — but a fight to just preserve the rights we had already won early in civil rights laws. Despite all the arguments and assertions to the contrary by opponents of this legislation, the protections in this new law are not groundbreaking. Far from imposing a new rule on employers, the legislation reversing the Ledbetter decision merely restores the well-understood law that prevailed in the majority of federal circuits and the policy of the EEOC under both Democratic and Republican administrations before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

This restoration of rights was very important, but there is now more to be done. As Ms. Ledbetter noted at the White House, our work now turns to improving the law.

Over 45 years ago, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act to fix the disparity in wages between men and women, but over time, loopholes and weak remedies have lessened its effectiveness. Another piece of legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act , makes several common sense changes to strengthen the Equal Pay Act — putting in place enforcement tools needed to make real progress on pay equity.

There should be little doubt that such improvements are necessary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau women who work full time still earn, on average, only 78 cents for every dollar men earn. The figures are even worse for women of color.

The consequences of this discrimination are severe and predictable. The pay disparity forces single-mother households and families dependent on two wage-earners to live on less than they rightfully deserve, while simultaneously reducing women’s retirement earnings. In short, unfair pay disparities perpetuate women’s economic dependence and deprive them of economic opportunity and equal protection of the laws. Moreover, and a critical factor today, women tend to be hurt first and worst during economic downturns.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is an important and measured approach to eradicating wage discrimination and is another critical weapon in the battle against sex discrimination in the workplace. The bill already passed the House of Representatives this past January, but is yet to be taken up in the Senate. As Ms. Ledbetter noted : “…you can count on my continued commitment to fighting to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act — and to make sure that women have equal pay for equal work, because that’s what this country is all about.” Indeed, fundamental fairness should be what this country is all about and, when it is not, like Ms Ledbetter has done on our behalf, we should work to achieve it. By signing the bill bearing her name, President Obama restored the right of employees to have their day in court to challenge any unlawful wage gap they uncover. Now we all must set our sights on the next step — improving the law — by closing, for once and for all, the wage gap itself.

Click here for the ACLU’s letter to Congress regarding the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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