Ledbetter helps fair-pay issue stay alive

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When Lilly Ledbetter walked into an attorney’s office in 1998 with a gender fair-pay issue, she had no idea years later the president of the United States would be signing The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

At best, she was hoping for a settlement to win years of back wages from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., where she worked for 19 years in Alabama. During that time, she was slipped a secret note that confirmed her suspicions: She was making less money than her male counterparts for the exact same job as production supervisor.

Her case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court said her complaint was not filed in a timely fashion — 180 days after first learning of the discrepancy. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ends that required filing time. Now the 180-day filing period resets with each new paycheck. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruling was cited in more than 300 cases before the pay act was signed, Ledbetter said.

“This is not the Lilly Ledbetter story — this belongs to every person,” she said. “Men are getting involved to support their moms, wives and daughters. This is so critical to our country.”

Ledbetter, author of “Grace and Grit,” will be in Colorado Springs on April 8 to talk with women about civil rights. Her visit is hosted by the Pikes Peak Women and the Women’s Resource Agency.

In October, Pikes Peak Women formed for the sole reason of bringing women together to discuss public policy that affects women. The group’s first forum was on the Affordable Care Act.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 full-time employed women earned 82 percent of the salaries their male counterparts did. Women had usual weekly earnings of $684 compared to men at $832. In 1979, the first year such data was available, women earned 62 percent of what men earned.

“You know as well as I do, women in the workforce are not paid what they deserve,” said Mary Ellen McNally, former city councilor and co-founder of Pikes Peak Women. “We felt this would be an opportunity to let women get to know this icon of equal pay and perhaps inspire them to be outspoken.”

Ledbetter is hoping for that too. She said she worked too many years without challenging the pay structure in her company. And, she lost money — 40 percent more per paycheck than her male counterparts.

“As I told the president, I feel a responsibility that I need to share this information with as many people as I can, especially young people and those in the beginning of their career,” she said. “I really care about them and I hope what happened to me never happens to them.”

But the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act does not go far enough, Ledbetter said. She wants Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has been discussed for a decade.

Ledbetter was in the Senate chambers in June 2012 when the lawmakers voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

It would require employers to show pay disparity is related to job performance and not gender, Ledbetter said.

“It lost by [five] votes,” she said.

“If that law had been in place when I was working, I could have been more aggressive and been able to find out about my pay,” she said. “Where I stood, I could never get a straight answer on how I stood with my peers.”

When she finally was slipped the secret note, she didn’t go to her supervisor or even the human resources department. She went straight to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It shouldn’t have to be like that, Ledbetter said.

“I want to see more women get into the politics of it — know what their vote means. And their vote does mean something,” she said. “Never in my lifetime would I have suspected the Supreme Court would have changed the course of my life.”

Lilly Ledbetter

• April 8, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway

• Private reception, 5:30-6:30 p.m. University Center Room 116. Cost $50. Advance book signing.

• Free lecture, 7- 8 p.m. Gallogly Events Center.

• Details, www.pikespeakwomen.org or 502-1335