Lunch with Lilly Ledbetter

18 Apr

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama, in January 2009.  The extraordinary woman behind this legislation honored the Allegheny County Bar Association with a lunch and speech, held at Duquesne University this week.

The short story of Ms. Ledbetter’s long and fascinating life is that she worked at Goodyear for nearly 20 years.  She fearlessly worked her way up the ranks of a heavily male dominated company. One day, as she reached retirement, she was surprised to receive a note in her mailbox from an anonymous coworker informing her that she was being paid less than her male counterparts.  A lot less. As in she was bringing home $3,727 per month (about $44,724 per year), while the lowest paid man in the same position was paid $4,286 per month (about $51,432 per year), and the highest paid man received $5,236 per month (about $62,832 per year).

She pursued a claim under the Equal Pay Act, and won a verdict over $3 million.  Then the 11th Circuit reversed the verdict, finding that she had only 180 days from the date of a pay decision (i.e. Goodyear’s decision to pay her less than her male colleagues) to initiate suit.  The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision.  The appellate rulings defied practical realities, because it’s highly unlikely for any employee to learn of the discriminatory intent at the time of the decision itself.

Justice Ginsburg read her dissenting opinion from the bench, and called the legislature to action.  Congress responded quickly, and drafted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ran the statute of limitations from any paycheck affected by the discriminatory pay decision, and allowed the plaintiff’s claim to reach back to the date of that decision.

Ms. Ledbetter was an eager and engaging speaker.  She is an inspiring example of how an ordinary blue-collar American can affect nationwide change.  Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling on her lawsuit, she never personally collected on her Equal Pay claim.  However, she took on the Fair Pay Act as her personal crusade, and was determined to change the law for future generations.  With her husband’s encouragement, she spent month after month in Washington, DC lobbying in support of her bill.  Even as he was in his final stages of cancer, he supported her, and she soldiered on.

In her speech, she explored how equal pay is a family issue, not just a “women’s” issue.  Many working families include working women.  For every woman who is making less money than her male counterpart, that is less money contributed toward a mortgage, less money toward the groceries, less money toward a child’s college education, and frighteningly, less money saved (and matched) toward retirement.  This is an issue that can make or break working families, and Ms. Ledbetter took the responsibility of this enormous issue upon herself.

Ms. Ledbetter happily signed copies of her book “Grace and Grit” at the end of the program.  She cheerfully chatted with the attendees, and was extremely friendly.  I notoriously claim up around anyone with the slightest bit of fame, and I was too shy to ask to take a picture with her.  She was an incredibly gracious speaker, and I’m sure she would have been happy to take a picture with me, so I’m kicking myself over it now.

She’s on a book tour now to promote “Grace and Grit.”  If you have an opportunity to hear her speak, I highly recommend you attend.  Her story is amazing, and she will inspire you to stand up and fight for what is right.

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