In front of a live prime-time audience at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC), Lilly Ledbetter became a cause célébre for pay equity as she talked about her experience with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, Ala.
After nearly two decades with the tire company, Ledbetter learned through an anonymous note slipped to her in early 1998 that Goodyear had been paying her less than her male peers for the same work.
The mother of two filed a charge with the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later that year before taking Goodyear to court in November 1999. A jury determined in 2003 that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But Goodyear appealed its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rendered a 5-4 ruling in favor of the company in May 2007.
The narrow majority rejected Ledbetter’s discrimination claim because she failed to file her complaint within 180 days from the day she received the first discriminatory paycheck. The court dismissed the argument that every subsequent discriminatory paycheck amounted to a subsequent civil rights violation.
Despite that setback, Ledbetter found an ally in then-presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Her speech at the DNC foreshadowed the legislation Obama signed into law as president on Jan. 29, 2009: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The law broadens the scope for workers to challenge unfair workplace practices in court and alters the statute of limitations rule so that a new 180-day period begins after each discriminatory paycheck is issued.
The 72-year-old grandmother, who lives in Jacksonville, Ala., continues to speak out about wage gaps. She has partnered with a coalition of national labor and women’s organizations across the country, including the National Organization for Women and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to call attention to workplace disparities in the United States.
Ledbetter is now pushing for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would increase workplace transparency for employees curious whether they’re being paid fairly. One of the provisions prohibits employers from taking action against workers who share or seek salary information. The legislation is currently on the Senate floor following its passage through the House in 2009.
I spoke with Ledbetter in September 2010.
—Jane Huh, In These Times intern
What motivated you to file suit so close to retirement, after nearly two decades working there?
Well, I was 59 when I got the notification about how much less I made. I was close to retirement; I would have retired at 62. …
The note I received had four names. And we four had the exact same job, just different shifts. So I looked at it and I was just deflated. I felt humiliated. It took me a while to sort of get my composure because I got that at the beginning of a shift. … We were working 12-hour shifts at that time. Halfway through the night, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only was my overtime and my weekly, every day pay shortchanged, so was my retirement because my retirement at Goodyear was based on my salary and length of service. …
I got home the next morning and explained that to my husband. I said, ‘If you do not object, I’ve got to file a charge with the Equal Employment Commission because this is not right.’ But I said, ‘I will tell you if I start it, I will be in it for at least eight years because there’s not a quick fix on cases like this.’ They drag on for years. He supported me right up to the date of his death in December 2008.
I found an attorney who would take my case pro bono and we started working. But we didn’t get to federal court until 2003. And then, we got to the Supreme Court in November of 2006. I got the final verdict in May of 2007. So it actually took me nine years instead of eight to get the final verdict.
Did you have expectations about any negative consequences the suit would bring to you and your family?
I knew it would not be easy. When you stand up for yourself and speak up, it’s never easy. … That was one of the reasons I took the early out later. … I was under a lot of stress at the time — I was an only child and my mother was dying of lung cancer. So when they offered that early out, I took it.
You still haven’t received restitution from Goodyear. Why not?
The jury came back with a verdict of $3.8 million. Of course, the judge immediately dropped the $3 million to $300,000. With back pay, an individual can only go back two years from the date the suit is filed, so that only gave me two years. They took the lowest paid person in that area and based my pay on his without any overtime. … There’s nothing in the law that allows people to go back and regain any of the lost retirement or overtime pay that they were shortchanged.
So no restitution?
No. I didn’t get a dime [because the Supreme Court overruled the jury’s decision]. I will never get anything. The only thing I did by standing up after the Supreme Court ruled is for the people who come after me.
I talk to so many single mothers who work two full-time jobs through the week and work another one on the weekends, and they still can’t pay all of their bills because the cost of living is so high. When my husband died in December 2008, I became one of those other statistics where my income dropped more than 50 percent, but the utilities and all of my expenses went up. There are so many people who have to move their mothers or mothers-in-law into their homes.
Do you have any contact or associations with Goodyear?
No, I’m retired. I have no reason to contact them.
How does the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act help close the pay gap?
What the Supreme Court has said in my case was, I should have filed in the first six months of employment, which would have been back in 1979. Even though I didn’t know [about the pay inequity], even though I didn’t have any way to prove it.
That didn’t make any sense because when a person gets a new job they are trying to learn their jobs’ responsibilities, make a good impression and do a good job. They’re not thinking about, in the first six months of employment, of ‘Hey, reckon they’re paying me right?’ It shouldn’t be that way.
From what I have witnessed, [the fair pay act] has encouraged the good employers to assess their policies and procedures and make sure they are within what they should be for everybody in their employment.
That’s what needs to come from this. We women are not looking to file a lawsuit. How many people want to basically be involved in a nine-year lawsuit? Nobody. … To me, it was never about the money. It was always about what’s right, what the American way is.
How would you respond to critics who say the act encourages more employees to sue their employers and to do so later to gain higher damages and back pay?
It will not encourage lawsuits. What I go around the country talking about is what happened to me and what younger people need to do. They need to check and know that they’re being compensated fairly and equally for the job they’re doing. If they’re not, then they need to do something about it rather than let it build up year after year. Because once you get behind, you cannot catch up.
In this country today, women outlive their spouses by ten years. That means all these spouses are living and struggling to get by. What the Ledbetter law does is basically put the law back exactly like it was prior to the ruling in my case because the ruling changed the law.
What sort of praise and/or backlash have you experienced for being the face of pay equity these days?
I’m treated like a rock star everywhere I go. I’ve been all the way to Rome, Italy. The Italian Ministry invited me over there last year for six days.
How has your life changed since the act was signed into law?
It’s changed my life drastically. I have traveled the United States extensively. There’s hardly a state I have not been to. At airports people recognize me, and they share their stories. It’s so heart-wrenching when you hear these women talk about [how] they can’t pay their bills.
The men get it. That’s what I like today. Men come out of audiences and tell me, ‘We just moved my mother in our home. We didn’t have room but she couldn’t get by on what my dad left.’ I have young men tell me, ‘I’ll never buy a Goodyear tire.’
How would you describe your personal politics?
I stayed neutral until I spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. … When I connected with that audience, I knew it was time that I had to come off that stage and support [Obama and Biden] even
though I was going from office to office trying to solicit and get support for the Ledbetter bill. I needed Republican support, we had Democrats’ (support) but I needed more Republican support. I had stayed neutral.
But I knew that night when I connected with that audience. [Then-candidate] Sen. John McCain had just made the statement that women needed more education and training, that that was why we didn’t earn as much money. I knew that was not true so I came off that stage and the first reporter asked me ‘When did you endorse Obama? ‘ I said, ‘Right now, I’ve just endorsed him.’ From that day forward, I started campaigning for him and Biden.
How would you assess President Obama’s leadership, particularly on labor and economic issues?
Very good. I congratulate [Obama] on what he’s done because the Equal Employment Opportunity offices across the U.S. have more employees now and they have more funds to do their work. I know in my state, the Birmingham office has been going to municipalities and city governments doing training sessions on how not to get into these situations. In other words, they’re trying to prevent it.
So much has improved, so much training, so much outreach. I’ve been to so many different areas. I am so impressed with all the changes that have been made in these areas since he’s come in.
What else will it take to address this disparity? How common is it?
What we need is for the employers to assess their procedures and make sure that they’re treating their people equally and fairly for the work they’re doing. Not because they’re black, white or male or female. It needs to be based on the job, the responsibility and the work that the person is doing.
I have letters from people (including from) women, for example, who are professors in colleges and they hold doctorates, are paid half of what their white male (counterparts) are paid.
A medical doctor in New York was paid half of what her white male counterparts were. … It’s not just first-line managers, like I was, or store managers. This goes on day in and day out. If you’re Latino or African-American, you’re making even less than a white women. That’s a shame.
Are there any other legal cases or legislative bills that you’re tracking these days?
I’m working on the [Paycheck Fairness Act]. It’s already passed the House, we need it through the Senate. We need it through the Senate before we get a new Congress because then we’d have to start all over in the House. … The lobbyists against this are saying it would just ruin employers. It will not. It’s a benefit. And a lot of the larger employers understand that it won’t.
I’m also doing some work with some of the people who are running for office and who support and voted for the Ledbetter bill. I do fundraisers and help them out. I’ll be going to Nevada to do some campaigning with some other ladies on behalf of Sen. Harry Reid out in Las Vegas and Reno. I had the pleasure of testifying on behalf of Elena Kagan, our new Supreme Court justice.
What other labor issues are you passionate about?
I’ve gone into a lot of different states to help (push for) paid sick days for the family people. There are so many employers that do not offer paid sick days. That really puts a hardship, I mean an extreme hardship and burden on families when they have a sick child or a sick parent or they’re sick. Often times when it’s them who’s sick, they go to work sick…, contaminating everybody else, causing more absenteeism and more cost to the employers than if the employers could offer some paid sick days…
What media outlets do you rely on for information?
I encourage all women to join the AAUW and the National Women’s Law Center in Washington D.C. Then there’s the ACLU and the Feminist Majority to stay updated. The National Women’s Law Center and the AAUW, they put out a lot of legal information every week that keeps me updated. It helps me a lot because I try to read as much as I can to help people.
Despite your retirement, you’ve been keeping yourself very busy.
Yes. I’m writing a book right now, it will come out in 2012. Hopefully, it will help keep the public educated on how hard this is. … Young college women and men, when I go to campuses, I’ll hear them say ‘I had no idea we were so behind.’ That’s why I got in such bad shape.
I worked for a corporate entity, a big one. We were the largest tire manufacturer in the world. We were billing government contracts from the day I went to work there to the day I left. … I thought surely they would have their feet held to the fire and that we would have to adhere to all federal guidelines in order to have those government contracts. They were supposed to, but nobody was enforcing them. My goal is to make these young people know what to look for, know about their rights.
—Oct. 5, 2010