As Dr. King Is Remembered, Senate to Consider Fair Pay Restoration Act

Media 01.18,08

We remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not only for what he did, but for what he dreamed. Yet in the last decade, that dream has been threatened by the rollback of a number of critical civil rights protections. Just last year the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that would make it easier for corporations to get away with pay discrimination.

As MLK Day approaches, a broad coalition of civil and human rights groups are rallying support for a bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to address this attack on civil rights.

Seniors, women, people of color, people of all religious faiths and people with disabilities, workers of all stripes, are organizing and asking that the Senate follow the action of the House by enacting the Fair Pay Restoration Act, a modest and targeted response to the Supreme Court’s decision, which would permit American workers to effectively protect their rights when faced with discrimination because of race, ethnicity, age, disability, religion or gender.

At issue is the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a case in which the high court dramatically limited the rights of victims of pay discrimination to successfully sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ms. Ledbetter, a veteran supervisor at Goodyear in Gadsden, Alabama, discovered only inadvertently, just before her retirement, that she had for years been consistently and purposely paid less than her male counterparts.  After she filed a complaint with the EEOC and sued her employer, a jury found that Goodyear violated her rights.

The Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, was not content to let justice stand.  Instead, in a controversial 5-4 decision, the sharply divided Court sided with Goodyear, which had argued that Ms. Ledbetter had filed her complaint too late.

The court calculated the deadline from the day Goodyear made its original decision to pay her less than her male colleagues, rather than – as the law had previously made clear – from the day she received her last discriminatory paycheck.  As a result, Ms. Ledbetter was unable to challenge any discrimination against her, even though the discrimination continued unabated for years – and persisted through the time she filed her lawsuit.  Further, it also had impact on her retirement benefits.

The decision contradicted decades of case law, including a Supreme Court opinion and decisions of nine of the circuit courts of appeals, and now removes effective recourse for workers who have been the victims of continuing discrimination.  Moreover, this rule immunizes employers from accountability for their discrimination.  Once 180 days – or six months – have passed from the first discriminatory pay action, they are largely off the hook. 

The Court’s decision in Ledbetter ignores the realities of the workplace.  Pay discrimination is a persistent problem because employees generally don’t know what their co-workers earn or how pay decisions are made, let alone that pay disparities may be based on discrimination.  It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that they can file a complaint precisely when a discriminatory pay decision is made. 

The bill the Senate will consider restores the law to its pre-Ledbetter status while leaving the statute of limitations intact at 180 days. It leaves in place restrictions in Title VII that deny plaintiffs any right to recover back pay for a period of more than two years before they challenge the discrimination. But it reinstates the principle that each paycheck that is reduced due to discrimination is a discriminatory act that resets the 180-day statute of limitations, thereby reestablishing the incentive for employers to evaluate and correct discriminatory pay decisions. 

Opponents argue that the bill will encourage workers to stockpile knowledge of discrimination so that they can cash in on years of known pay discrimination.  This claim is ludicrous.  Few workers would opt for years of lightened paychecks based on discrimination instead of their rightful salaries, and Title VII contains mechanisms that limit the relief plaintiffs can receive if they wait.

Responsible business owners know that in the long run, discrimination hurts their bottom line because businesses thrive on the talent and creativity that a diverse and fairly treated workforce provides.

Enacting the Fair Pay Restoration Act would make clear that the law means what it says and restore the tools necessary for individuals to effectively protect their rights. 

We hope you will follow this legislation. If you would like to speak with a legal expert to discuss the legislation in more detail, Mistique Cano (202-263-2882) or Jenice Robinson (202-319-3021) can put you in touch.

  • AARP
  • ACLU
  • American Association of People with Disabilities
  • American Association of University Women
  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • Anti-Defamation League
  • Asian American Justice Center
  • Feminist Majority
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
  • Legal Momentum
  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
  • National Council of Jewish Women
  • National Employment Lawyers Association
  • National Organization for Women
  • National Partnership for Women & Families
  • National Senior Citizens Law Center
  • National Women’s Law Center
  • People For the American Way
  • Women Employed