Equal pay still unequal

A case of unequal pay arrived before the Supreme Court on Monday, 43 years after it was made illegal. Bush sided with the discriminators.

by Abby Bar-Lev

Last Monday, the Supreme Court heard a case that sounds like it belongs in the 1970s.

The case dealt with gender discrimination. It is perhaps all-too-common knowledge that women, on average, still get paid less than men for equal work. Despite the fact that equal pay has been the law since 1963, women continue to receive less on the dollar than men. In 2005, women were still receiving 77 cents to every dollar men received. As the AFL-CIO noted, “The average 25-year-old working woman will lose about $455,000 to unequal pay during her working life.”

The case that came before the Supreme Court Monday involved a woman named Lilly M. Ledbetter, who worked at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant in Alabama for 19 years. She became a manager, but nonetheless in 1997 was earning less than the lowest-paid male worker in the department. She retired in 1998 and, according to The New York Times, “filed a discrimination charge against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” A federal court awarded her $3 million “in back pay and compensatory and punitive damages.”

Here the case gets tricky. The company appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision and sided with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant.

The Court of Appeals held that Ledbetter did not have a case because of the 180-day rule for filing suit with the EEOC. Once discrimination has taken place, the victim of discrimination has a filing period of 180 days. The Appeals Court held that since Ledbetter could not prove intentional discrimination 180 days prior to her complaint to the EEOC, her time expired and she essentially could not file a charge against her employer for discrimination that began 19 years ago.

Contrarily, Ledbetter, her lawyers and the EEOC argued that the 180-day filing period does not stem from the original date of discrimination, but rather each paycheck begins a new cycle. Since Ledbetter did file within 180 days of her last paycheck, they argued that her file and the federal court’s decision should be upheld.

It is difficult to imagine, on a common-sense level, that this would not be the case. The EEOC itself has employed this logic in previous instances with what it has called the “paycheck accrual rule” under which, as The New York Times reported, “each pay period of uncorrected discrimination is seen as a fresh incident of discrimination.”

There are a number of reasons why someone might not file discrimination charges within 180 days of its original occurrence. As Justice Stephen Breyer commented in oral arguments, there are most likely numerous cases where women are being paid less but are unaware of it, and it might take “even a year for her to find out.” Moreover, it is altogether possible that a woman realizes she is being discriminated against, but in the interest of safeguarding her job she might choose not to file immediately.

Almost more appalling than the facts of the case itself is that the Bush administration has actively sided with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant. Unusually, the administration came down on the side opposite to its own agency, the EEOC, which is arguing on Ledbetter’s behalf.

As appalling as it is, it is hardly a surprising stance from the Bush administration. After all, the administration has hardly been a women’s advocate throughout its six years, to say the least. Rather, it has been downright hostile to women’s rights. This is a president who, barely after being sworn in, cut federal funding to family planning agencies in Africa. This is a president who has opposed stem-cell research. This is a president who has “clarified” the equal opportunity law Title IX to allow schools to skirt their responsibilities. This is a president who has opposed progress for women’s rights time and again.

The Supreme Court cannot allow such a view to prevail. Lilly Ledbetter was actively discriminated against for 19 years. For 19 years, she was paid less than her male counterparts. For 19 years, she and countless other women in this country were not and continue to not be granted the dignity of equality. The Supreme Court should not let the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant get away with such discrimination. We are living in 2006; it is far past time for equal pay to be more than just words on paper.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected].