Leahy Presses For Early Action On Fair Pay Bill

Bill Would Remedy 2007 Supreme Court Decision That Erodes Pay Equity Rights

WASHINGTON (Friday, Jan. 9, 2009) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is among the Senate leaders who on Thursday introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, legislation to ensure equal pay for women and minorities in the workforce.  The Senate is expected to consider the legislation -- cosponsored by 54 Senators in all, and one of the first bills introduced in the new session -- later this month.

“Equal pay for equal work should be a given in this country,” said Leahy.  “Unfortunately, the reality is still far from this basic principle.  Just a handful of Senators thwarted our efforts last year to rectify the Supreme Court decision that undermined this standard.  With families hit hard by an economy in recession, we cannot allow gender discrimination or any other form of discrimination to flourish in the workplace.  I hope the Senate will act quickly this year to correct this unfair ruling by passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.”

The Lilly Ledbetter Bill was written to remedy a 2007 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire  in which a divided Supreme Court held that workers must sue for pay discrimination within 180 days after the original pay-setting decision, no matter how long the unfair pay continues.  Lower courts already have begun citing the ruling in decisions that erode civil rights.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a series of hearings in the Committee to examine the impact of court decisions on the lives of all Americans.  Lilly Ledbetter, a champion for equal pay and for whom the bill is named , appeared before the panel.  Just weeks before her retirement, Ledbetter discovered an anonymous note indicating that her employer had been paying her significantly less than male coworkers with the same position.  The Supreme Court overruled a jury verdict that found that Ledbetter had been deprived of over $200,000 in pay, and ordered Goodyear Tire to pay her additional damages for the misconduct.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act amends Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that the statute of limitations runs from the date of the actual payment of a discriminatory wage, not just from the time of hiring.  If enacted, employees can seek a remedy based on each discriminating paycheck, not just during the first 180 days of pay discrimination.

The House of Representatives passed legislation last year to push back on the Supreme Court decision, but its consideration was stalled in the Senate when Republican members blocked consideration of the bill last year.  Leahy’s full statement follows. 

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
On The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009
January 8, 2009

I am pleased to join Senators Mikulski, Kennedy, Snowe and others in introducing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009.  This legislation is long overdue and I am pleased that the Majority Leader will try again to move this legislation in the opening days of this new Congress.  The Supreme Court’s divided decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire struck a severe blow to the rights of working families across our country.  More than 40 years ago, Congress acted to protect women and others against discrimination in the workplace.  In the 21st century, equal pay for equal work should be a given in this country.  Unfortunately, the reality is still far from this basic principle.  American women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a male counterpart.  That decreases to 62 cents on the dollar for African-American women and just 53 cents on the dollar for Hispanic-American women.

For nearly twenty years, Ms. Ledbetter was a manager at a Goodyear factory in Gadsden, Alabama.  After decades of service, she learned through an anonymous note that her employer had been discriminating against her for years.  She was the only woman among 16 employees at her management level, yet Ms. Ledbetter was paid between 15 and 40 percent less than all of her male colleagues, including several who had significantly less seniority.  After filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a Federal jury found that Ms. Ledbetter was owed almost $225,000 in back pay.  However, five members of the Supreme Court overturned her jury verdict because she had filed her lawsuit more than 180 days after her employer’s original discriminatory act.

I was honored to invite Ms. Ledbetter to testify at a Judiciary Committee Hearing I chaired in September to examine how the Supreme Court’s recent decisions have affected the lives of ordinary Americans.  Ms. Ledbetter’s case is but one example of how the Supreme Court has dramatically misinterpreted the intent of Congress and offered a liability shield to corporate wrong-doers.

This decision is yet another example of the Supreme Court’s increasing willingness to overturn juries who hear the factual evidence and decide cases.  A recent study revealed that in employment discrimination cases, Federal Courts of Appeal are five times more likely to overturn an employee’s favorable trial verdict against an employer than they are to overturn a verdict in favor of the corporation.  That is a startling disparity for those of us who expect employees and employers to be treated fairly by the judges sitting on our appellate courts.

In the 110th Congress, the House passed the bipartisan Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by a vote of 225 – 199.   In the Senate, despite the support of 57 Senators who urged its consideration, the majority of Republican Senators objected to even proceeding to consideration of this bipartisan measure.  One Republican Senator who supported the filibuster introduced an alternative bill, claiming to offer a solution for victims of pay discrimination.  In reality, that partisan alternative proposal would fail to correct the injustice created by the Ledbetter decision.  At the Judiciary Committee hearing in September, Ms. Ledbetter confirmed that the alternative bill would not have remedied her case, but instead would have imposed additional burdens and increased the costs of her litigation.

Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to protect employees against discrimination with respect to compensation because of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin - however the Supreme Court’s cramped interpretation of this important law contradicts Congress’s intent to ensure equal pay for equal work.

This Supreme Court decision goes against both the spirit and clear intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and sends the message to employers that wage discrimination cannot be punished as long as it is kept under wraps.  At a time when one third of private sector employers have rules prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with each other, the Court’s decision ignores a reality of the workplace – pay discrimination is often intentionally concealed by employers.

Equal pay is not just a women’s issue, it is a family issue.  With a record 70.2 million women in the workforce, wage discrimination continues to hurt the majority of American families. As a working mother, the discrimination inflicted on Ms. Ledbetter affected her entire family and continues to affect her retirement benefits.  As the economy continues to worsen, many Americans are struggling to put food on the table and money in their retirement funds.  It is regrettable that recent decisions handed down by the Supreme Court and Federal appellate courts have contributed to the financial struggles of so many women and their families.  In the next weeks, I hope we can act to overturn the wrongly-decided Ledbetter decision to prevent the devastating consequences of pay discrimination. 

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