September 2013 Bar Bulletin
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September 2013 Bar Bulletin

Parity Still MIA 50 Years after Equal Pay Act

By Christina Schuck


In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law. At the time, women earned just 59 cents for every dollar paid to men.1 Fifty years later, nationally, women earn just 77 cents on the dollar.2

Locally, in April of this year, the National Partnership for Women and Families named the Seattle metro area as the worst place for female wage earners. Specifically, women earn just 73 cents to each dollar earned by men — the lowest in the nation.3 The gender pay gap persists, despite federal laws, enforcement actions and task forces.

The Equal Pay Act prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women who work in the same establishment and perform jobs under similar working conditions requiring equal skill, effort and responsibility.4 Additionally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it an "unlawful employment practice" to discriminate "against any individual with respect to his compensation ... because of such individual's ... sex."5 The rule applies to discrete acts of discrimination, including termination, failure to promote and pay-setting decisions.

In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (LLFPA) in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.6 It was the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Ledbetter worked at Goodyear's plant in Alabama from 1979 to 1998 and claimed Goodyear paid her less than her male counterparts in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. Throughout Ledbetter's employment, Goodyear awarded salaried employees raises based upon their supervisors' evaluations of their performance. After what Ledbetter claimed were unfair evaluations based upon her sex, Goodyear paid Ledbetter just $3,727 per month, while paying male area managers between $4,286 and $5,236.

Although a jury awarded her back pay and damages, the Eleventh Circuit reversed and the Supreme Court affirmed. Deciding the case under Title VII, the Court ruled Ledbetter's claims were time barred. Importantly, the Court determined the pay-setting decision was the discrete act of discrimination and, accordingly, the 180-day deadline to file charges with the EEOC started when Goodyear set Ledbetter's pay.7

Unfortunately for Ledbetter, she wasn't aware she was earning less than her male colleagues until well after these decisions were made and well after the 180-day deadline had passed. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out in her Ledbetter dissent, pay disparities are especially difficult for an employee to identify because they happen in small increments and salary information is often confidential, making it difficult for workers to obtain relief.8 To combat this, Justice Ginsberg challenged Congress to overrule the majority's specific holding and "correct [the] Court's parsimonious reading of Title VII."9

In response, Congress passed the LLFPA, directly overruling Ledbetter and amending Title VII to clarify that a discriminatory compensation decision occurs each time the employee is paid pursuant to the discriminatory compensation decision or other practice.10 Thus, the LLFPA does not add protections or lengthen the statute of limitations, but instead attempts to address some of the difficulties plaintiffs face in a wage-discrimination suit and help them obtain redress.

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