Friday, November 9, 2012

Lilly Ledbetter shows "Grace and Grit" with Colbert

Watch Lilly Ledbetter on the Colbert Report

But is her namesake law enough to prevent wage discrimination?

"I read the scribbled words and my heart jerked as if an electric jolt had coursed through my body ... I'd never gotten a note like that before.  Someone had listed my name and those of three other tire-room managers with salaries next to each name.  My salary was exactly correct, down to the dollar.  Over the years, I'd worried about being paid less than the men who were doing the same work I was, but I didn't have any proof ... But now there it was in plain black ink, what's I'd always feared:  The other managers, all men, were making more than I was."  -- "Grace and Grit:  My fight for equal pay and fairness at Goodyear and beyond" by Lilly Ledbetter and Lanier Scott Isom

Lilly Ledbetter became the face of equal pay when President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January of 2009.  She has now written a book titled "Grace and Grit: My fight for equal pay and fairness at Goodyear and beyond." 

Some background:  Ledbetter was an overnight supervisor with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for over 19 years.  She discovered she was making 40 percent less than male coworkers who were doing the same job.

"That was a devastating hit for me because it meant that my overtime was incorrect ... and it also meant that my retirements would not be correct," Ledbetter told Stephen Colbert during a recent appearance on "The Colbert Report."

Ledbetter sued Goodyear and was awarded $3 million in damages.  However, the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court when it was found that Ledbetter missed the 180-day limit for complaints set the the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination based on race, sex and religion.

The Ledbetter law amended the 1964 act so that the 180-day statute of limitations resets with each new paycheck affected by the discriminatory action.

Ledbetter is sharing her story because she does not want what happened to her to happen to other families.  But is her namesake law enough to prevent pay discrimination?

Jamie Peck, a contributing editor for The Gloss, says no.  Here's why:

"The most glaring issue I have with it is that it does nothing to empower victims of discrimination to figure out whether they’re being discriminated against in the first place" says Peck.

"As of now, companies are under no obligation to disclose how much they’re paying all of their employees, which leaves those who are potentially being discriminated against to ask their co-workers what they are making. This is generally thought of as being a “rude” question, so many never bother to ask. And even when they do ask, many won’t tell, because…well, because they don’t have to!"

What she's talking about is wage transparency, which is basically the freedom for employees to share salary information -- or to ask their employers for this information -- without fear of discipline, discrimination or dismissal from their employers.

 Colorado passed a transparency law in 2008.

According to the National Law Journal,Coloado Senate Bill 08-122 "... applies only to employers who are subject to the NLRA and makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge, discipline, discriminate against or in any way interfere with any employee who had 'inquired about, disclosed, compared, orotherwise discussed the employee’s wages.' It also prohibits making nondisclosure by an employee of his or her wages a condition of employment or requiring employees to sign awaiver of “the right to disclose” their wage information."

Similarly, California labor law prohibits "employer limitations on when, how and with whom their employees may discuss their wages. The California law also explicitly prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign a waiver of the right to disclose their wage information."

Here in Michigan, I found, under Payment of Wages and Fringe Benefits, Act 390 from 1978 which states that an employer shall not "(a) Require as a condition of employment nondisclosure by an employee of his or her wages. (b) Require an employee to sign a waiver or other document which purports to deny an employee the right to disclose his or her wages. (c) Discharge, formally discipline, or otherwise discriminate against for job advancement an employee who discloses his or her wages."

A new bill that would amend this Act to permit employees to ask their employer for the compensation rates of those in similar jobs was proposed in the spring, but I can't find any evidence of further action.

Adoption of wage transparency laws would be the next step in the fight against wage discrimination. But, until they are widely adopted, Lilly Ledbetter, and those like her, must continue to tell their stories to keep the issue of equal pay in the public eye and on the agenda of legislatures.

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