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March 26, 2013

Ledbetter: Supreme Court made her case about all Americans

MANKATO — When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in 2007, undoing about 50 years of precedent in wage discrimination, it was no longer just an issue of Ledbetter vs. Goodyear, she said.

“This was your case,” Ledbetter said Tuesday night during the annual Carol Ortman Perkins lecture at Minnesota State University. “What happened to me and my family, I never want to happen to another family because this is not right in this country, and it is not legal.”

A small-town woman from Possum Trot, Ala., Ledbetter never imagined she would be a high-profile political figure with the responsibility of fighting on behalf of the nation for equal pay rights when she filed a discrimination suit against her former employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.

Ledbetter had worked at the company 19 years when an anonymous note from a colleague in 1998 revealed she made thousands less per year (about 40 percent less) than her peers in management. Humiliated and devastated, she said she knew she had to fight.

“I was really sick. I was just sick thinking about how much money I had lost,” she said.

What really upset her was calculating how much she had been shorted over the years when considering the large amount of overtime she put in, how her retirement and 401K had been affected, and how her social security checks would be 40 percent less than what was deserved for the rest of her life. All of those calculations were percentages based on income, and all were short-changed simply because she was a woman.

“My family had done without — not because I would not work, (but) because I worked for a company that wouldn’t pay (fair and equitable wages),” she said. “I lived up to my end of the bargain. I did my job. I did it really well. I was good at it. But my company chose not to live up to their end of the bargain.”

President John F. Kennedy had signed into law The Equal Pay Act of 1963 that ensured equal pay between sexes. Kennedy called wage discrimination against women “unconscionable,” which was what made the Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter’s case so devastating.

In her law suit against Goodyear, a jury initially awarded her $3.8 million (although the cap she was entitled to by law was $300,000 plus $60,000 for two years back wages). The appeals court overturned the decision on a technicality, and then the Supreme Court heard the case finally in 2006.

In its 5-4 ruling in 2007, the court stated that Ledbetter should have filed the discrimination case within 180 days of her first unequal paycheck — even though at that point, she said, she had no idea her pay wasn’t equal or that she was being discriminated against.

“My heart stopped when I saw the United States government take the other side,” she said. “I was sad, too, because it was not only me, it was a lot of other people involved.”

Ledbetter said that decision set a terrible precedent and caused more than 300 discrimination cases to be thrown out by judges based on the 180-day technicality. Until then, the law had been interpreted on an accrual basis, meaning the 180-day statute of limitations was renewed every time a paycheck was issued.

Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, however, Ledbetter and her attorney went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a bill being drafted that would nullify the Supreme Court’s decision. And on Jan. 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed his first bill into law — the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which returned the law to its original accrual-based status.

“That’s the way it should be,” Ledbetter said. “For us to get this country back on track and be No. 1 again, we will have to make sure people are paid equitably and fairly. ... This has been a hard journey for me and my family, but it is one I would do again.”

To this day, Ledbetter said she hasn’t heard from Goodyear. She says the company’s claim is that Ledbetter was a poor employee, which is why she was paid less. However, she said, poor employees likely wouldn’t be kept on the payroll for more than 19 years.

A question she gets often is whether she ever learned who wrote the anonymous note, which in many ways was the catalyst for the past 15-year ordeal. She doesn’t know.

“No” is also the answer to another question she gets a lot: “Do you buy Goodyear tires?”

These days, Ledbetter tours the country talking about the need to further equal pay rights, noting that in 50 years women have gained just 18 cents on the dollar. (Research now shows that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.)

She also raises awareness about another bill regarding paycheck fairness that would allow employees to request information on how their pay compares to that of other employees. And she also helps raise money for women, both Republican and Democrats, running for political office.

Jessica Flatequal, interim director of the Women’s Center, called Ledbetter a charismatic spirit with a relevant story that means a great deal to both women, men and their families. Numerous other students and faculty in the audience expressed a great deal of excitement to meet Ledbetter after having learned about her case in 2008 when the bill was signed.

Karyn Stoutenburg, a teaching assistant in the Communications Studies department, said she told her students that while they may get excited about people like Justin Bieber, “I nerd out over people like Lilly Ledbetter.”

Gustavus Adolphus College student Donte Curtis asked Ledbetter what had motivated her to pursue the case for so long.

Principle, she said. She will never let anyone take advantage of her and her family when the law is on her side.

“I cannot quit. I am not a quitter,” she said.

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