We will not rest until we can enact more policies that give workers stronger tools to challenge pay disparities and other forms of employment discrimination.
Fifteen years ago, we stood at the White House while then President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This law restored the rights of employees to have their day in court for ongoing wage discrimination taken away by the Supreme Court in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case.
Lilly Ledbetter served as a manager at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala., for over 19 years. After she was slipped an anonymous note, she learned that she had been paid significantly less than her three male colleagues throughout her career. Ledbetter filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
In 2007, Ledbetter’s lawsuit ended with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Goodyear, which overturned her original jury award of $3 million. Ignoring the egregious facts in the case, five justices said employees had to file a complaint within six months of an employer’s first decision to discriminate, whether the employee knows about the discrimination or not.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the ruling made no sense in the real world. Such an absurd decision needed a congressional response. With the support of advocates nationwide and champions in Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was introduced, which would restore the law and make clear that workers can challenge every discriminatory paycheck.
There were many hurdles, including early Senate filibusters and veto threats by then-President Bush. When we worked on this bill, people thought equal pay was an issue that had been resolved in the 1960s. Pay equity is an integral part of the national conversation today, but that was not the case in 2007.
With the support of advocates nationwide and champions in Congress, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was introduced, which would restore the law and make clear that workers can challenge every discriminatory paycheck.
Collectively, a core group of advocates had to design a public education campaign that would pierce the public consciousness about this ongoing problem. Paychecks are the lifeblood of families, and the pay gap needed to be shown to the public and policymakers.
Political fortunes changed during the 2008 election year. The campaign was working—the public was outraged and pressure was mounting. Deborah also had the good fortune of introducing Lilly to then-Senator Obama, and the rest is history.
The policymakers eventually responded—the House and Senate passed the bipartisan bill in January 2009, and it became the first one signed by newly elected President Obama. A generation of people have come to understand the need for pay equity as part of the national dialogue, thanks in part to the campaign the coalition of organizations designed two decades ago.
This bill was such an important victory for workers and gave employees who were experiencing ongoing pay discrimination their day in court. However, the law did not give women new tools to combat the wage gap itself.
With all working women earning on average 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts—and the pay gaps even wider for women of color—it reminds us our work is still far from finished.
We continue to call on Congress and the Biden administration for smart policy solutions that would help working families. In Congress, one of the next steps in reaching pay equity is the Paycheck Fairness Act—a bill that would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to give workers stronger enforcement tools and remedies to help close the pay gap between men and women once and for all. But things have been frustratingly stagnant in Congress.
Until then, the Biden administration can act to help ensure pay equity. We made this same argument for executive branch change when the Paycheck Fairness Act did not move forward in Congress during the Obama administration. In 2014, President Obama heeded the call and issued an executive order banning retaliation against the employees of federal contractors for disclosing or inquiring about their wages, as well as ordering the collection of pay data from certain employers.
Our work then was an outgrowth of Lilly’s experience and the solutions needed to stop pay discrimination. Goodyear was a government contractor—taxpayer dollars subsidized their policies—and employees were not allowed to discuss their salaries. That is one of the reasons it took so long to discover the discrimination that was happening.
In the last decade, a lot has happened in the fight for pay equity. Troublingly, politics has become more polarized. We remember a time when Republican and Democratic members of Congress were united in their vote for the Ledbetter bill. Since then, sadly, the movement has lost ground in bipartisan support on commonsense pay equity protections in Congress in the last 15 years. We hope that changes again. Civil rights issues are not partisan.
Encouragingly, the workforce has different expectations and demands about pay transparency. Fifteen years ago, pay secrecy was the norm for employers nationwide, including at Goodyear. People could be fired for just asking about wages. It was major progress when President Obama banned retaliation for wage disclosure for the federal contracting workforce.
Today, employees want even more, and rightfully so. While we still need a federal law to make this apply in all workplaces, states are passing pay transparency laws, including bans on the use of salary history to set wages, requirements to post pay ranges in job announcements and mandatory pay data collections. Moreover, some high-road employers are doing it voluntarily.
The movement has lost ground in bipartisan support on commonsense pay equity protections in Congress in the last 15 years. … Civil rights issues are not partisan.
Challenging the Biden Administration to Address Pay Inequity
We continue to fight for the Paycheck Fairness Act and other fair pay legislation. In the meantime, this administration can take actions that apply to federal workers and contractors, and could provide progress on pay equity for millions of employees.
The Biden administration is close to finalizing a rule banning the use of salary history when setting wages for federal employees. This is especially important for women and workers of color, as their prior wages may have been tainted by discrimination.
We also are urging the administration to move forward on a similar rule banning the use of salary history for federal contractors. This would be critical as many private employers also have federal contracts and millions of employees would be protected.
The federal agencies are also working on other policies that would help identify and close wage gaps, like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s national pay data collection, which would give them more information to enforce our nation’s pay discrimination laws. The collection was stopped under the Trump administration, and we continue to urge the EEOC to reinstate this important mechanism for civil rights enforcement.
We will not rest until we can enact more policies that give workers stronger tools to challenge pay disparities and other forms of employment discrimination. It’s time to set fair and transparent wages, so people like Lilly would have been able to make what she rightfully earned while working at Goodyear Tire.
We are proud to stand together, once again, as we continue to fight for new tools that will address and eliminate pay disparities that so deeply affect women workers, particularly women of color and their families. As another anniversary closes on the signing of this law, we continue the fight.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.