Activists gather at a January wage-bias forum.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Lilly Ledbetter became an immediate star in the movement to eliminate gender pay bias when the U.S. Supreme Court took up her case against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. She first sued her employer, the Akron, Ohio-based manufacturer, in 1998 for nearly 20 years of paychecks that were significantly less than those of male co-workers at her level.

However, the Supreme Court’s negative ruling against her in May 2007 and the subsequent stalling out in the U.S. Senate of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act made her name a byword for the frustration of stunted wage-reform efforts under the outgoing Bush administration.

Now, on the heels of the U.S. presidential election of Barack Obama and a Democratic majority in the Senate of 58 seats, activists in New York who have attracted Ledbetter to their cause say they are hoping for the best from the next Congress.

"It’s sort of like, what do we want for Christmas?" said Beverly Neufeld, vice president of the New York Women’s Agenda, a New York City coalition of professional women. "We want some new fair pay legislation. That would be a gift."

Neufeld and others say they’re also lobbying state legislators because U.S. lawmakers could disappoint, especially since Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ win in early December quashed the option of a filibuster-free majority for the Democrats.

Pushing for Equal Pay in New York

Lois Haignere, a coordinator of the New York State Pay Equity Coalition, which includes about 25 organizations, is gearing up for another push for the New York State Fair Pay Act. That bill would provide workers back pay along with punitive damages.

The bill would include employees who had comparable job titles, not just identical positions, which is more extensive than existing law. It would also outlaw intimidating an employee for disclosing his or her salary to co-workers. Haignere said workers are sometimes fired for revealing what they make when bosses want to discourage wage comparisons.

The law has been passed twice by the New York State Assembly in the last two years but consistently held up in the State Senate. "It’s been a one-house bill," said Haignere. However, the New York Senate is now controlled by the Democrats, for the first time in a generation.

The coalition is planning fundraising and awareness-raising events for the spring legislative session. Last year, it organized a Gloria Steinem Day, when the prominent women’s rights activist led 500 women to the state capital to rally for the Fair Pay Act.

Building Case for ‘Comparable’ Pay

This group is on the national vanguard of those broadening the approach to wage-reform beyond "equal pay" to "comparable" pay. Instead of strict apples-to-apples comparisons of similar job titles and tasks, it entails smoothing out the pay-scale surface of diverse types of work.

For example, Haignere said, in some schools in New York, janitors earn more than the teaching assistants, which she regards as an example of unequal pay in predominantly male and female fields, respectively.

Teaching assistants in the New York area made about $15.61 an hour, compared to janitors, who made $16.27 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Bottom line, it’s looking at the value of the work being done," says Neufeld, a coordinator of the Equal Pay Coalition NYC, which co-hosted a breakfast on the topic last month that included Lilly Ledbetter as a panelist.

Neufeld said New York could set a national example by passing legislation that focuses more on the intrinsic value of women’s work rather than inequities between men and women in male-dominated fields.

The New York bill–which acknowledges that discrimination has depressed women’s wages–encourages employers to use "a system that measures earning by quantity or quality of production" or any factor "other than sex, race or national origin." The bill specifically urges employers to consider jobs that are dissimilar but have similar requirements, skills or working conditions. Job comparisons should not ignore "the worth of jobs where women and minorities are disproportionately represented," according to the bill.

It also prohibits employers from lowering other employees’ wages to meet equal pay standards.

"We would make a statement to other states that we need to look at value of work and not the gender of people working," Neufeld said.

Three Proposals in Congress

Three pay-equity bills have surfaced in the U.S. Congress in the past two years.

The Fair Pay Act, introduced in May 2007 by Iowa Sen. Thomas Harkin, proposed evaluating pay by the quantity or quality of a worker’s production, in line with the New York state version. Harkin’s bill died in a Senate committee.

But activists expect that two other bills could be revived in the next congressional session, which begins Jan. 6.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, sponsored by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and introduced in March 2007, expands damages for employers found guilty of pay discrimination. It passed the House but not the Senate.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2007, sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. George Miller, passed in the House in July 2007 before stalling in the Senate. The bill would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to outlaw discriminatory compensation.

It also aims to restore what many say was lost in the Supreme Court ruling in the Ledbetter case: the right to sue for pay discrimination on the basis of gender, race, national origin or religion.

"This gets us back to level," Neufeld said.

She would also like to see fair-pay wording in any federal bailout bills or measures to stimulate the economy out of recession.

"We should see the fair pay action as part of an economic stimulus package," Neufeld said. "By having women in the work force we create a stronger and more competitive package."

Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She is a master’s candidate at New York University studying journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies.