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Lilly Ledbetter's Search for Lost Income, Part II

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Lilly Ledbetter lost her Supreme Court battle for fair pay. Now retired and a widow, her battle shifted to her Social Security office, which lost her February check. Her story shows how workers who suffer wage bias can feel the sting in retirement.

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Lilly Ledbetter lost her Supreme Court battle for fair pay. Now retired and a widow, her battle shifted to her Social Security office, which lost her February check. Her story shows how workers who suffer wage bias can feel the sting in retirement.
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Lilly Ledbetter

(WOMENSENEWS)--Lilly Ledbetter's Social Security check went missing for nearly two weeks this month.

In the meantime, the $360 heating bill for her home in Jacksonville, Ala., was left waiting to be paid.

It was another exercise in frustration for the 70-year-old who has become synonymous--by virtue of the Supreme Court case she lost and the law named for her signed by President Barack Obama--for the woes of gender-wage bias.

Her most recent problems started on Feb. 2, when she noticed her monthly Social Security benefit wasn't deposited into her bank account. Each day that followed, she was either on the phone or visiting the local office to find out what happened. She even called an Alabama congressman for help. It wasn't until Feb. 13 that a "courteous and hard-working" supervisor in Baltimore was able to locate her payment.

"If you get to the right person, you can get some help," said Ledbetter, who suspects the missing deposit was connected to a mishandling of the one-time death benefit of her husband, who died in December. "The injustices in life seem to go on and on."

In 2007 Ledbetter lost her case before the Supreme Court to rectify what lower courts ruled was long-term wage bias.

Ledbetter worked for over 20 years for Goodyear Tire and Rubber before she discovered that she was paid substantially less than male counterparts. The Supreme Court ruled that she could not proceed with the discrimination suit because a 180-day time limit had expired by the time she discovered the discrimination.

Dismay at the court's technical reading of the law spurred Congress to pass a bill in her name, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which changed the limitation on filing bias complaints. It was the first legislation Obama signed into law.

Ledbetter has spent much of the last year being honored at awards ceremonies and was saluted as a hero by first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in January. She was also selected as a 2009 Women's eNews Leader for the 21st Century.

Famous and Low on Funds

But the fame and recognition haven't changed her retirement funds.

Altogether, she's living on her Social Security benefit as well as a small monthly retirement pension from Goodyear. She also takes in a contribution from a matching 401(k) retirement fund she contributed to while she was working. In total, she needs every penny to pay her bills.

Ledbetter knows why she sometimes has a hard time making ends meet.

"That's because I was paid less," Ledbetter said.

The Supreme Court's decision stripped her of $360,000 in damages awarded to her by a lower court. An initial jury verdict--later reduced by a judge--had awarded her $3.8 million.

And because the former plant supervisor was paid less throughout her tenure at Goodyear, her Social Security benefit is lower as a result, as well as her company pension. Since she didn't earn what she was entitled to, she also wound up contributing less to the 401(k) matching fund.

Based on what her better-paid male colleagues were earning at Goodyear, Ledbetter estimates that her company pension would have paid at least double what it does now.

Overly Dependent on Social Security

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Washington-based Women's Institute for a Secure Economic Retirement, known as WISER, said many women wind up being overly dependent on Social Security because they don't take a serious look at what they'll need in the future.

But Ledbetter said that was not the case with her. "I was 40 years old when I was hired at Goodyear and I planned to work another 25 years. I wanted the best benefits possible," she said.

But she was forced out in 1998 at age 60 before she was eligible for retirement; part of her four separate legal cases against Goodyear rested on claims the company retaliated against her after she complained about her discriminatory paychecks. Those years she was out of work and unable to receive Social Security because she wasn't 62 meant she nearly drained her personal savings.

The poverty rate among elderly women is about 75 percent higher than for elderly men, according to the National Women's Law Center, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Older women who live alone are even more vulnerable to poverty.

Hounsell said her group supports a minimum Social Security benefit to help poorer, elderly people whose payments are currently too low to survive on. But amid the current economic crisis, she's not too optimistic. "There are a lot of forces on the other side trying to cut programs. It's like rolling a snowball up the mountain."

Rolling Uphill

Rolling uphill was exactly how Ledbetter was feeling earlier this month. Had she not been able to sell her late husband's truck last week, she says she would have been dipping into "what little is left of my savings."

When Ledbetter called the 800-number that helps retirees sort out issues with their Social Security benefit payments, the person staffing the phone told her the money had been sent to a Wachovia bank account.

But that was a problem, she said, because she doesn't have a Wachovia account.

Then, after she questioned why the agency couldn't provide a record of the electronic payment, Ledbetter said, the operator rudely told her to "hush." She said she felt the treatment was disrespectful at her local office, as though she were requesting a handout rather than her due.

A spokesperson for the Social Security Administration said the agency could not discuss the particulars of the case, but it "takes very seriously" complaints about missed payments and investigates them quickly.

Ledbetter thinks her problem was connected with her husband's death.

Because he worked on the rails, he received his retirement benefit through the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board rather than through Social Security, and both their Medicare services were provided through the railroad agency. With his death, her benefits had to be transferred over, and Ledbetter reported it shortly after the funeral.

That was when her check stopped coming, she said.

Ledbetter said the Railroad Retirement Board office had a record of delivering the "urgent priority" transfer request on Jan. 13. But the woman who handled the paperwork knew what happened right away.

"'Every time,' she told me, 'they do not put these in the system.'"

Jennifer Thurston is managing editor of Women's eNews.