06.20.12

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2012

Today, I am pleased to join Senator Franken to introduce the Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act of 2012.  This important legislation will respond to the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, and restore women’s ability to challenge discrimination in the workplace.

Today marks the one year anniversary of that case—where just five Justices disqualified the claims of 1.5 million women who had spent nearly a decade seeking justice for sex discrimination by their employer, Wal-Mart.  By a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the women did not share enough in common to support bringing a class action. Perhaps more troubling, just five Justices said that Wal-Mart could not have had a discriminatory policy against all of them, because it left its payment decisions to the local branches of its stores.  In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court provided a clear path for corporations to avoid company-wide sex discrimination suits, and made it harder to hold corporations accountable under our historic civil rights laws.

Betty Dukes has worked for Wal-Mart, where she started as a part-time cashier in Pittsburg, California, for almost 20 years.  Throughout her years at Wal-Mart, Betty expressed an interest in advancement and in the management track.  Unfortunately, she was continually overlooked for promotions, receiving only one in her lengthy career there. Betty Dukes then learned of the pay disparities between the male and female employees at a Pittsburg Wal-Mart store. She decided to take a stand, and filed a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart in 2001. Betty Dukes and the other women were appalled to learn that the pay disparities did not stop at the Pittsburg store.  In fact, there was widespread gender discrimination occurring at Wal-Mart stores across the country.

Last year, I chaired a hearing on how Supreme Court rulings affect Americans’ access to their courts. Betty Dukes came and shared her story at that hearing.  She made it clear that she did not plan on giving up. In these tough economic times, American consumers and employees rely on the law to protect them from fraud and discrimination. They rely on the courts to enforce laws intended to protect them. Unfortunately, these protections are being eroded by what to many observers is the most business-friendly Supreme Court in the last 75 years.

The Supreme Court’s recent decisions make some wonder whether it has now decided that some corporations are too big to be held accountable. Whether it is Lilly Ledbetter suing her employer for gender discrimination, or a group of consumers suing their phone company for deceptive practices, an activist majority of the Supreme Court is making it more and more difficult for Americans to have their day in court. 

We cannot ignore the fact that gender discrimination in the workplace persists. Earlier this month, I urged the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would have set a clear path to address the systemic problems that result from pay disparities.  Unfortunately, the Senate could not overcome a partisan filibuster, and was not able to even debate the measure.

I believe that the ability of Americans to band together to hold corporations accountable, especially when it comes to workplace discrimination, has been seriously undermined by the Supreme Court.  All people should be evaluated on the basis of their contribution to the workplace, not irrelevant factors like sex, gender, race, ethnicity, or disability.  These decisions have been praised on Wall Street, but will no doubt hurt hardworking Americans on Main Street. I thank Senator Franken for introducing this important bill, and urge all Senators to come together and support this effort to restore hardworking Americans’ access to their courts.

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