Senate Democrats Hold Hearing on Pay Equity for Women

By Fred Lucas | September 23, 2008 | 7:02 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( – Lilly Ledbetter, a former Goodyear Tire plant manager who became a cause célèbre among advocates of gender pay-equity issues, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that she has become a second-class citizen.
At one point in the hearing, the committee chairman echoed a line from an ‘Obama for President’ television ad, criticizing Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s position on the issue.
“My retirement is based on what I earned,” Ledbetter told the panel. “This means I’m treated like a second-class citizen all of my life because that never changes.”
Ledbetter lost a pay discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she filed the complaint too late. She retired after working 19 years at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala.
The high court said that, under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an employee must sue within 180 days regarding alleged pay discrimination. Speaking to a group of mostly Democratic senators – some of whom were quick to make electioneering statements – Ledbetter had a sympathetic audience.
Senate Democrats introduced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act this year. If passed, the law would extend the limit on how long an employee can wait before suing an employer for pay discrimination. The bill was stopped by a Republican-led filibuster.
Of the two presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) voted for cloture so the bill could come up for a final vote, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not present during the vote but voiced his opposition.
Echoing a line from an Obama campaign ad, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) referred to McCain, saying, “One senior senator, who didn’t show up to vote on the act, said quote ‘women just need more education and job training.’”
Ledbetter said she was “strongly offended” by the McCain statement and that she frequently took continuing education courses while working for Goodyear.
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) more explicitly referred to the presidential election. He said presidents appoint judges, who act as “umpires calling the game.”
“This demonstrates why elections are important,” Durbin said. Continuing a baseball analogy, “For all this talk about strict constructionists, if a president picks a judge with a predisposition, you are out.”
A analysis of data from the Report of the Secretary of the Senate published last week indicated that McCain pays women working on his Senate staff an average annual salary that is 24 percent more than the average annual salary that Obama pays women on his Senate staff.
Obama, on average, also pays women on his staff only 78 percent of what he pays men.  McCain, on average, pays women 101 percent of what he pays men.
There was one voice in the hearing opposed to the Lilly Ledbetter Act.
Former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney Lawrence Lorber contended the proposal would not help equal pay, but would create more class-action suits that would damage both the employer and employee in the long run.
“The act would expand litigation opportunities for class-action lawyers seeking millions of dollars from companies without ever having to prove that the companies intentionally discriminated against women in setting compensation rates,” he told the panel.
Lorber later added that if the bill became law, “employers might be asked to deal with cases that might be 20 years old. Unlimited liability turns the Equal Pay Act on its head.”
Ledbetter, who spoke last month at the Democratic National Convention, told the Judiciary Committee that the pay disparity between her and other male supervisors ranged from 15 percent to 40 percent. The jury in her case awarded her $200,000.
“Equal pay was passed in 1963,” Ledbetter said in the hearing. “Why, why in 2008 are women not paid equally?”
The only woman on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), suggested, misspeaking, “If every working woman took Goodrich tires off their car, the company might be more sensitized to this issue.”
Prompting laughter from the audience, Leahy corrected Feinstein. “It’s Goodyear (not Goodrich),” she said. “We don’t want people pulling off the wrong tires.”
No more than four senators sat in on the testimony at a time. Ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was the only Republican to attend the hearing, but he was there only for the opening, leaving before testimony began.
The goal of the hearing was not entirely clear, as Democratic senators vowed to bring up the Fair Pay Restoration Act in the next session, admitting that there is no chance it will pass in this session of Congress.
Cyrus Mehri, an attorney who specializes in bringing discrimination lawsuits, told the committee that 41 percent of jury decisions siding with employee plaintiffs are overturned by federal appeals courts, while only eight percent of jury decisions siding with employer defendants are overturned on appeal.
Mehri called on the Judiciary Committee to take a more thorough look at judicial nominees, based on this statistic.
He said the Senate should approve only nominees “who as part of their life experience – like Justice (Ruth Bader) Ginsburg – who [as] part of their work experience have fought to open doors, who have fought for American workers, who have fought for the middle class and small businesses. We don’t have that in the judiciary right now. Judges are drawn from lawyers who have worked for the most powerful. We have precious few who have worked for people like Ms. Ledbetter, who just want a fair shake.”