How one individual’s experience changed the nation.

Lilly Ledbetter with Lanier Scott Isom - Grade and Grit - My Fight for equal pay and fairness at Goodyear and beyond.

In the late 1970s, Goodyear hired Lilly Ledbetter to work as a supervisor at its tire factory in Alabama. Ledbetter was the only female supervisor at the plant, and remained so for the nineteen years she worked there. She received a Top Performance Award for her work in 1996.

Unbeknownst to Ledbetter, her salary and raises were not in line with those of her male colleagues. Ledbetter’s contract with Goodyear barred her from discussing pay with co-workers. Shortly before her retirement, someone left an anonymous note on her desk showing the salary range of her peers, some of whom had far less experience. According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg, the discrepancy was “stark”:

  • Ledbetter: $3,727/month
  • Lowest paid male manager: $4,286/month
  • Highest paid male manager: $5,236/month

Ledbetter sued Goodyear for sex discrimination, a lawsuit that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. Although Ledbetter was paid less than her male colleagues, she lost her case. The law at the time required that plaintiffs bring a lawsuit within 180 days from the discriminatory corporate policy that led to a lesser salary, rather than 180 days from any resulting paycheck.

Employees are not typically informed of discriminatory policies by their employers, so the law placed people like Ledbetter at a tremendous disadvantage. In 2009, Congress remedied this issue, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The new law kept the 180-day limit on filing a discrimination lawsuit, but changed the trigger. Instead of requiring action within 180 days of the policy, an employee could sue within 180 days of any act of discrimination, such as receiving an unfair paycheck.

The law did not change past court decisions based on the rules available when they were decided. But it prospectively improved the position of employees who find that their pay is out of line with others in equivalent jobs. The law pins the time limit on lawsuits to information actually available to an employee, rather than to company policies that may not be commonly known.

Ledbetter started her career at Goodyear in 1979 and retired in 1998. Each decade saw gradual changes to public opinion on women in the workplace. Ledbetter believes that a man left her the salary note. That man saw bias for what it is: simple unfairness.

Stacey Supina, Center for Ethics in Practice, University of St. Thomas