In The Courts

Judges Weigh Woman's Wage Bias at Goodyear

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Supreme Court heard an appeal Monday by a woman who, at the end of her career, discovered she had suffered wage discrimination for years while working at Goodyear. A decision in her favor could help narrow the persistent gender wage gap.

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Lilly Ledbetter and her lawyer Kevin Russell

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Can a victim of wage discrimination sue her employer if she fails to file a complaint to the government within the six-month statute of limitations imposed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

What if the victim didn't know she was being discriminated against until after the statute of limitations had expired?

Exactly how long, in other words, does an employee have to complain if she is being paid less for the same work because of her gender?

Those were the questions raised Monday by members of the Supreme Court, who heard the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a former employee at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama who was almost 60 years old, and near retirement, before she found out her employer had for years been paying her substantially less than her male counterparts for the same work.

During the hour-long hearing, justices grilled lawyers on both sides of the case with a smattering of hypothetical questions regarding workplace discrimination, but few revealed clear positions on the nuanced case.

"I thought the justices had serious questions for both sides," said Kevin Russell, who argued the case on Ledbetter's behalf. He said he thought the judges were trying to balance the rights of workers against the rights of employers facing stale complaints.

"There are a number of justices who could be swing votes," Russell told reporters on the court's marble steps after the hearing. "I didn't get a great sense of who those justices would be. This was a quiet bench."

Justices are expected to rule before the end of June 2007, when the current term ends.

Decision Affecting Millions

Their decision will apply to millions of employees and employers in the private and public sector and, depending on the outcome, could help address the persistent wage gap.

More than 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay men and women unequal wages if they hold the same job, women's wages still lag behind those of their male counterparts, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of women's and civil rights organizations in Washington, D.C. In 2005, women earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by a male, according to the committee.

A decision in favor of Ledbetter could help other victims of wage discrimination recoup their losses.

In 1979 Ledbetter was hired as a supervisor at Goodyear's tire assembly department in Gadsden, Ala. At the time she was hired, she was paid the same amount as Terry Amberson, a similarly situated man, according to On the Docket, a legal news service published by Northwestern University.

But 19 years later, Ledbetter was earning $15,000 less per year than Amberson, according to Northwestern's case summary. In fact, her annual salary fell below that of all her male counterparts in the tire assembly department and was even lower than recent hires with far less experience.

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