U.S. Senate Says Women Can Only Sue for Pay Discrimination Within 180 Days

Last week I wrote a very popular post about discrimination based on physical appearance and its negative effect on workers’ salaries. Continuing to build on that theme, I’d like to talk today about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007).

Slate Magazine gives a great summary of the circumstances surrounding the Lilly Ledbetter suit against her employer, Goodyear Tire:

“Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire in Atlanta for almost 20 years. When she retired, she was, according to Ginsburg, “the only woman working as an area manager and the pay discrepancy between Ledbetter and her 15 male counterparts was stark: Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month; the lowest paid male area manager received $4,286 per month, the highest paid, $5,236.” So she filed a suit under Title VII, and a jury awarded her more than $3 million in damages. The jury found it “more likely than not that [Goodyear] paid [Ledbetter] a[n] unequal salary because of her sex.” You see, Ledbetter hadn’t just negotiated herself some lame salary. She was expressly barred by her employer from discussing her salary with her co-workers who were racking up raises and bonuses she didn’t even know about. She found out about the disparity between her pay and her male colleagues’ earnings only because someone finally left her an anonymous tip.”

Title VII, one of several legislative measures passed under the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibits discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Ledbetter had a strong case for pay discrimination. She was underpaid by a significant amount compared to male co-workers at the same level, even though she was one of the more tenured employees. She could prove a pattern of harassment by male supervisors, several of whom testified to such at trial, and had an anonymous note informing her of almost 20 years of blatant discrimination and withholding of pay toward her.

However, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Ledbetter’s jury verdict should be overturned and her $3 million in back pay and damages returned, because she did not file suit within 180 days of the first occurrence of discrimination (i.e. her very first paycheck).

On April 23, 2008, the United States Senate decided to veto a bill that would overturn the ruling and let the 180 day statue of limitations period on filing for discrimination stand. It seems the lawmakers of our country find nothing wrong with pay discrimination based on gender, asserting that women should be able to pick up on it within 6 months of being hired.

Possible reasons for their decision include:

The U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would allow victims of gender discrimination to learn of and prove discrimination in those rare cases in which their employers don’t cheerfully discuss it with them at the office Christmas party. And the reasons for blocking it include the fact that women are not smart enough to file timely lawsuits, not smart enough to avoid being manipulated by vile plaintiffs’ lawyers, not smart enough to know when they are being stiffed, and—per John McCain—not well-trained enough in the first place to merit equal pay.

The real reason this ruling is so ludicrous and essentially a slap in the face to the “equal pay for equal work” movement, is that most workers, not just women, have no idea what their co-workers make. In some offices, like Goodyear, discussing salary is specifically forbidden.

If you don’t know what your peers are making, how are you supposed to know that you are making less?

How do you prove a pattern of discrimination if you’re only allowed to track 5 – 6 months worth of wages?

I have always been a staunch proponent in keeping your salary to yourself. On the occasion that I do find out what some of my co-workers make, I usually only feel resentful and underpaid. But lately, I’ve been wondering if I should change my stance on that.

The advocates for sharing salary are deeply divided. Some people advocate complete secrecy, while others propose something as radical and open as writing down everyone’s salary on a list and posting it up in the office breakroom.

According to our own laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act, employees are guaranteed the right to know what everyone makes:

The NLRA says employers cannot interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in exercising their rights under NLRA, which protects the employees’ right to discuss their “wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment” for their “mutual aid or protection.”

Because, really, who benefits from workers not knowing what others in their field make? Their employers.

With mid-year performance reviews rolling around, I think I might start doing some research on payscale.com. Maybe it’s time for me to negotiate a higher salary.

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7 responses »

  1. I have always wondered what the benefits of not discussing pay with my fellow coworkers were. Aside from some workers being jealous, I would imagine that it is better to acknowledge the exact pay each employee makes so that if one is to make a claim of discrimination, the evidence is clear. It really serves no one but the employer to keep pay on the hush.

  2. The Senate didn’t “veto” the Ledbetter Act. The law got a majority, but more than 40 Republicans prevented the law from being passed by a filibuster. And yes, one of the Republicans opposing it was John McCain. Both Hillary and Obama voted for cloture (i.e. for the filibuster to end and to pass the bill).

  3. This is a great topic. I’ve often felt that, similar to athletes, salaries should be public. As you mentioned, the only person benefiting from this secrecy is the employer.

    IF everyone was being fairly paid then why should it be a secret? If someone is being paid higher/lower than someone else, there should be clear justification for it.

    This could also be a quantitative method to assess how good employees are relative to their peers (within the same organization of course!).

  4. Yes! You should change your stance. Company executive must post their salaries and bonuses. Union members all know what each other make as it is part of their collective bargaining agreement. Member of Congress must disclose their income. If it is okay for all of these millions, why not everyone? “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. Sad to say, this ancient truth is nowhere to be seen in the modern American arena. Do we discriminate with our pay scales for women, blacks and Hispanics? What a strange world that we still have issues regarding discrimination over pay. Like sexual harassment, the true victims rarely report it while the abused suffer in silence. This is a problem. Huge Problem. In my book, Wingtips with Spurs, I devote a chapter to pay discrimination and how it is often over-looked or swept into a dark corner. And yes, it still exists in modern America. While we pour more stupid laws into the books to prevent such painful actions, we fail to fix the real problem, that is, the root. In addition, we have been conditioned by lawyers to believe that legal and moral are the same thing. So sad. Whenever a human is treated differently than the masses, we should take a cold, hard look at the situation. A hard look indeed. Maybe even the mirror. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR http://www.michaellgooch.com

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