Obama: Equal pay for equal work

President Barack Obama, center, signs the Lilly Ledbetter Bill with Lilly Ledbetter, forth from the left, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009, in the East Room at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It was his first bill that he signed into law, and it was only quite natural that President Barack Obama would address one of the most critical issues of improving workplace diversity — equal pay.

“Ultimately, equal pay isn’t just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families, it’s a question of who we are — and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals,” President Obama said. “Whether we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put to paper some 200 years ago really mean something — to breathe new life into them with the more enlightened understandings of our time.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act is named after an Alabama woman who learned at the end of her 19-year career at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company that she had been paid less than men. She sued, and a lower court found the company guilty of pay discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The company appealed and found a friend in the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Ledbetter, arguing that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her male peers. As a result, courts across the country used the Ledbetter decision to reject hundreds of other lawsuits alleging discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability without considering the merits of the individual cases.

The legislation signed into law on Jan. 29, 2009 by President Obama changes all of that. It expands worker’s rights to sue in this kind of case, and relaxed the statute of limitations such that the 180-day clock restarts every time a worker receives a paycheck. This wasn’t the first time Congress had tried to counter the Ledbetter decision. They had drafted legislation during President George Bush’s tenure; but the White House opposed it.

Language in the new law was very critical of the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling. “The Ledbetter decision undermines those statutory protections by unduly restricting the time period in which victims of discrimination can challenge and recover for discriminatory compensation decisions … ,” the law states. “The limitation imposed by the Court on the filing of discriminatory compensation claims ignores the reality of wage discrimination and is at odds with the robust application of the civil rights laws that Congress intended.”

Now 70, Ledbetter was unable to recover lost wages as a result of the new law. “Goodyear will never have to pay me what it cheated me out of,” she told reporters at the White House. “In fact, I will never see a cent. But with the president’s signature … I have an even richer reward.”

Obama was quite pleased. “It’s about justice,” Obama said in brief remarks. “It’s about who we are. It’s the story of women across this country still earning just 78 cents for every dollar men earn — women of color even less — which means that today, in the year 2009, countless women are still losing thousands of dollars in salary, income and retirement savings over the course of a lifetime.”

Without using the word “diversity,” Obama was also quite clear on justice within the workplace. “… Making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone,” Obama said. “There are no second class citizens in our workplaces, and that it’s not just unfair and illegal — but bad for business — to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook — it’s about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives: their ability to make a living and care for their families …”

Obama is right. Opponents of the law claimed that it would encourage more lawsuits and argued that employees could delay filing their claims in the hope of attaining higher settlements. But fair is fair — even if the conservative majority on the Supreme Court doesn’t quite get that idea.

“Equal pay is by no means just a women’s issue — it’s a family issue,” Obama said. “It’s about parents who find themselves with less money for tuition or child care; couples who wind up with less to retire on; households where, when one breadwinner is paid less than she deserves, that’s the difference between affording the mortgage — or not; between keeping the heat on, or paying the doctor’s bills — or not. And in this economy, when so many folks are already working harder for less and struggling to get by, the last thing they can afford is losing part of each month’s paycheck to simple discrimination.”