Saturday, September 27, 2008

Equal is equal ... except when it's not

(Originally published 9/27/08)

Lilly Ledbetter had worked at the Gadsden, Ala., Goodyear plant for 19 years and was preparing for retirement in 1998. An anonymous colleague tipped her off in a note that that she had been underpaid by thousands of dollars a year compared to her male colleagues. Even her pension was affected.

A jury awarded Ledbetter more than $3.3 million in back pay and damages. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the award last year, ruling 5-4 that Ledbetter had filed her claim too late. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 typically gives workers 180 days from the time of the alleged discrimination to report it.

As dissenting justices pointed out, workers don’t typically have access to other employees’ paychecks for comparison.

Never mind that, the majority said. You’re still on the clock.

Democratic lawmakers howled. In legislation to fix the problem, lawmakers say the decision "significantly impairs statutory protections against discrimination" "contrary to the intent of Congress."

Republicans, including both of Alabama’s U.S. senators, are blocking the bill out of fear that the clarification would lead to lawsuits that would drag down the economy.

... Because greedy mortgage lenders haven’t done that already. But I digress.

Opponents give bloviating speeches about how they support equal pay for equal work. They wax warmly about their mothers, sisters and daughters and the good work they do in the economy. And then they go kill the legislation that would make things better -- and by better, I mean just equal –- for their mothers, sisters and daughters.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers voted against the bill when it passed Congress last year. Why? Here’s the full explanation his press secretary provided:

"I grew up in a blue collar family with a Mom who worked at a textile mill and Dad who served as a firefighter. I know firsthand the pains of working people, and of working women in particular. I certainly understand the intent of this legislation, but remain concerned it simply doesn’t strike the right balance."

Really? What is the right balance? What did Rogers do, if anything, to improve the bill? And was Rogers’ mother lucky enough to make equal pay for equal work at the textile mill? Or was she underpaid and discriminated against, too?

Rogers didn’t respond.

Of course, Republicans who believe so much in fairness could offer their own bill or amend the existing one. Maybe they’d like to block punitive damages. I wouldn’t like it – after all, punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer for ... well, doing wrong. How are they not appropriate in a case wherein a corporation has knowingly, willfully and repeatedly violated the Constitution and discriminated against its employees?

But at least I would respect them for trying to make the bill into something they could support. Instead, they give us trite sound bites about how they support the principle but oppose a bill that would strengthen that principle.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about women’s progress in this country.

Yes, we have come a long way, baby. But Lilly Ledbetter’s appearance in the Senate on Tuesday was a stark reminder that we’ve still got a long way to go.

Editor’s note: Staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers responded to my follow-up questions after this column’s print deadline. To read the response, read “Alabama’s lawmakers on the Fair Pay Restoration Act” here.

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