Lilly Ledbetter

Lilly Ledbetter

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 

Intro­duc­tion

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.

Pol­i­tics

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. 

Per­son­al

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.

Pol­i­tics

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. 52010

Lil­ly Led­bet­ter, for which The Lil­ly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act is named, is an Amer­i­can activist.
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