Closing the Ledbetter Loophole

Soon after the Supreme Court's rollback of a workplace anti-discrimination law, Congress considers a measure to ensure equal treatment.

Among the recent flurry of Supreme Court decisions that have marked an ideological assault on years of hard-won progress in civil rights and social justice, the Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber represents perhaps the most brazen assault on the principles of equality that this country stands for.

In a split 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that Lilly Ledbetter, a 19-year employee at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company who had been systematically paid less than men in the same position, was ineligible to file suit for discrimination or receive back pay compensation. The court did so by very narrowly interpreting Title VII in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination, including pay, in the workplace.

The Title VII clause stipulates that a victim of pay discrimination must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within six months of the discriminatory act. Ledbetter, long discriminated against, was unaware of her substantially lower pay until she was tipped off about her male co-workers’ more lucrative salaries in 1998. She immediately filed a claim and was rewarded damages by a lower court. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that because she filed more than 180 days after the decision to discriminate she was not eligible for compensation and damages.

This interpretation gives massive amounts of leeway to employers who choose to discriminate in pay and treatment. In effect, a company can report a discriminating decision was made at any date outside the statute of limitations. And because many companies keep employee pay confidential, it often is years before an employee realizes he or she is being discriminated against.

Congress is therefore set to vote on the Lilly Ledbetter Paycheck Fairness Act today, which would amend the Title VII clause in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make clear the original intent of the law: an employee who has been discriminated against would again have six months after the issuance of the paycheck to file a complaint with the EEOC, setting a firm date instead of the easily manipulated date of decision. Additionally, because employees are oftentimes unaware for long periods of time that they are being discriminated against, employees would be additionally eligible for up to two years of back pay.

This measure is a crucial step toward guaranteeing fair pay and employee rights, and is a reflection of the work we still must do to secure equal rights and equal pay for working women. Despite Department of Labor projections that by next year women will make up 48 percent of the workforce, on average they are paid just 77 cents for every dollar that men earn for performing the same or similar job. Deliberate and institutional discrimination like that practiced against Lilly Ledbetter is unacceptable, and laws barring them must be enforced, not weakened by ideologically hostile courts and lawmakers representing special, and not constituent, interests.

For more information on the politicization of the Supreme Court, see:

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