Lilly Ledbetter has plenty of fight left in her.
By DIANE STAFFORD
The Kansas City Star
The woman whose pay discrimination case went to the Supreme Court and whose name ended up affixed to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act isnt fading into a quiet retirement in her 70s.
Coiffed and polished a far cry from her days hefting tires in an Alabama Goodyear plant Ledbetter is on the speaker and lobbying circuit 10 months out of the year.
Im still working on the Paycheck Fairness Act, Ledbetter said Tuesday in Kansas City. My bill didnt go far enough. It only put the law back the way it was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against me. Women still dont get equal pay.
Her speaking fees and donations from like-minded individuals and organizations are financing what has become her lifes mission. Its a story she chronicles in a new book, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.
A brief refresher:
A hard-driven woman from a hard-scrabble background, Ledbetter had done well in office jobs including a stint managing H&R Block offices before she applied for and won, at age 40, a supervisory job in a Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant.
After 20 years on the job, often encountering vandalism, discrimination in work assignments and outright sexual harassment as the lone woman in the work unit, someone slipped her a note that showed she was making far less than three of her male peers.
The pay difference, of about $1,000 to $1,500 a month, added up month after month, year after year on the job and ultimately affected her retirement pay, leaving her hundreds of thousands of dollars short.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated her complaint and gave her the right to sue. She won at trial but lost on appeal, and against the odds, the Supreme Court accepted her case for review.
In a 2007 majority decision that sent shock waves through the human resource field, the high court ruled against her. The majority said shed lost the right to sue because she didnt bring her complaint soon after her very first paycheck discriminated against her.
Of course, I didnt know until 20 years later, Ledbetter said. But Justice Ginsberg spoke up.
In a minority opinion, Ruth Bader Ginsberg challenged Congress to pass a law that reflected workplace reality that victims of pay discrimination rarely know theyre being discriminated against from the outset. And even if they do, they need their paychecks and fear rocking the boat.
The subsequent act which allows each discriminatory paycheck to be treated as the onset of discrimination and thus extends a workers ability seek reparation received bipartisan support and became the first bill signed into law in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
Ledbetter avidly supports Obamas re-election.
I think its my responsibility to tell people that they need to research this election and look carefully at who theyre voting for. Look at their records not at what they say theyll do, Ledbetter said, in advance of a book-signing appearance sponsored by Rainy Day Books and attendance at a political fundraising dinner.
When Ledbetter, now a widow, manages to get back home to Alabama, she treasures time with her family. Through her son and daughter, she has four grandchildren, ranging in age from college graduate to second-grader.
We have to get it right for them, Ledbetter said. I dont want them to have the problems I had.
Shes hopeful that equal pay will become the law in her lifetime.
Men are talking about it. They have mothers, wives, daughters who work. They see women supporting families. They have to get this done, she said.
Meanwhile, Ledbetter is amazed at the doors that have opened to her, the powerful people she has met, the extensive traveling she has done. And in many ways shes better off than if the Supreme Court had supported her back-pay claim.
If Id have gotten the $360,000 from the Supreme Court, the law firms would have gotten half, Id have paid the taxes on my half, and since Id already spent $40,000 of my own money to pursue the case, I would have ended up with only about $10,000, she said.
My son said, Mom, youre a winner by being a loser.