Lilly Ledbetter earned less than her male coworkers for nearly two decades, but she didn’t find out about it until someone sent her an anonymous note. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2007 that she needed to file the claim against her employer within 180 days of the initial discriminatory act to be eligible to sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But how could she have filed if she didn’t know that her male coworkers were earning more than she was for doing the same job?
One of the 111th Congress’ first actions will be to remedy this flawed and unfair ruling by passing legislation—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—that states that a violation occurs every time a worker receives a discriminatory paycheck, not just the first time. This is an important step forward and one that we should all applaud.
Yet as Ms. Ledbetter discovered, workers do not know of unfair practices unless they know what their coworkers earn. Employers are legally allowed to withhold this information from their employees or discipline them for sharing wage information with their colleagues. This makes it virtually impossible for workers to know if a workplace is indeed complying with current fair pay laws.
To remedy this, the House of Representatives today also intends to take up the Paycheck Fairness Act. This legislation, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in the House and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the Senate, prohibits employers from limiting workers’ ability to share salary information or retaliating against them for seeking that information.
The gender wage gap is a pressing issue for middle-class families. The typical wife brings home over a third of her family’s total income, and millions of families rely on a single female wage-earner. All workers need protection from unfair wage and employment practices. The Senate blocked passage of fair pay last spring. Hopefully, the newly inducted Senate will see just how important paycheck fairness is and quickly pass both pieces of legislation. Especially in a recession, no one should get less than a fair day’s wage.
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