On January 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Democrats’ quick response to a (Bush) Supreme Court decision which had taken away almost all avenues for workers to recover for pay discrimination. In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 decision) that Lilly Ledbetter “had failed to file a discrimination suit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in a timely manner,” citing a 180-day deadline. It turns out Ms. Ledbetter had been underpaid (as compared to male employees doing the same job) for about 20 years, but her employer kept her from knowing about the pay disparity until she happened to find out about it in conversations with other employees. When she found out, she immediately complained about it, but the Supreme Court held that her recovery was limited only to those pay periods occurring 180 days before she filed her complaint. The Court ruled that she could not recoup the pay disparity for the decades that she was subject to pay discrimination. Under the new law that carries her name, the time limits for complaining about pay discrimination are extended every time a discriminatory pay check is issued.
As Senator Ted Kennedy noted, the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act “proves that elections make a real difference for real people.” Hopefully, President Obama will also have opportunities to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will not turn away from unfair discrimination in the workplace in future cases.