[OPINION] Civil Rights, Equality Still Relevant: Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Signed Jan. 29

By Elizabeth Williams-Riley

As President Barack Obama was recently sworn into oath for a second term, it reminds us of the first bill protecting our civil rights that he signed into law four years ago—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The Act amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and states that the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new paycheck affected by that discriminatory action.

Lilly Ledbetter’s plight of inequality is not uncommon for people of all races and religions, ages, and genders. A supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Ala., she worked from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. During most of those years, she served as an area manager, which was a position occupied primarily by men. Although Ledbetter’s salary was initially equal to those of men performing similar work, over time her pay differed compared her male counterparts with equal or less seniority. By the end of 1997, Ledbetter was the only woman working as an area manager and her pay discrepancy was significant: Ledbetter received $3,727 each month, while the lowest paid male area manager was paid $4,286 monthly and the highest paid $5,236.

President Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 directly addressed Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a U.S. Supreme Court decision that the statute of limitations for presenting an equal-pay lawsuit starts when the employer makes the initial discriminatory wage decision, not on the date of the most recent paycheck. In other words, the court originally ruled that employees subject to pay discrimination such as Ledbetter must file a claim within 180 days of the employer’s original decision to pay them less, even if the employee continues to receive reduced paychecks and even if the employee doesn’t discover the discriminatory pay reduction in his or her workplace until much later.

Although this law has been altered, women, people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, LGBT individuals, individuals with disabilities, and numerous others continue to face inequality in jobs, in pay, in power, as well as other areas within society. Take women in the workplace. While the pipeline of young women in middle management and professional roles is an encouraging 50 percent, the percentage of women in top leadership positions at Fortune 1000 companies remains in the single digits—and what’s disturbing is that number hasn’t changed significantly in more than a decade.

Ledbetter echoed the slow-moving progress for equality in an NBC News interview. She said she’s overjoyed by President Obama’s reelection—“I no longer have to worry about the Ledbetter Bill being repealed”—but “we are still a long way from equal pay and equal benefits.” The simple truth is, no individual should be devalued in his or her compensation and efforts to provide the best-quality service on the job, especially when compensation is one of the primary ways people are shown to be valued in the workforce.

That’s why the work of the American Conference on Diversity, now celebrating 65 years of valuing diversity, educating leaders, and promoting respect throughout New Jersey, is more relevant than ever because it touches all segments and pockets of society. The work of this great organization extends from the playground to the boardroom. From our youth and educators’ programs to our workplace training and education initiatives, the American Conference on Diversity won’t be satisfied until we’ve reached our ultimate goal: equality for all of us, not just some of us.

Elizabeth Williams-Riley is President and CEO of the American Conference on Diversity, a New Brunswick, N.J.-based organization that’s celebrating 65 years of valuing diversity, educating leaders, and promoting respect throughout the state.

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