The U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Government Photo
Americans being the independent sort, it's rare for them to advertise to their podmates the size of their paychecks. And corporations are notably reluctant to share information about employee pay levels. Yes, such info may be available in some workplaces — government jobs, union shops. But that is the exception, not the rule. So how is a woman, for example, who suspects that she's being underpaid, compared to men doing the same work for the same period of time, to discover that inequity within just 180 days of taking the job?
Yet that's the standard upheld, in a 5-4 ruling last month, by the Supreme Court. The case involved a woman working at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama who sued the company after learning that, as the sole woman among 17 management-level employees, she was the lowest paid. She wasn't the lowest in seniority. But it took her 20 years at the plant to document the discrimination. In effect, the high court's ruling made the glass ceiling harder to shatter.
Lawyers for the employee, Lilly M. Ledbetter, argued that the 180-day time period for filing a gender discrimination lawsuit should restart with the issuance of each paycheck, since each represents an individual instance of discrimination. That's an interpretation long held by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ledbetter had won her case before that body and a series of federal court rulings.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas took a position siding with business interests, which benefit from a larger legal shield when the period for filing a discrimination complaint is shorter. Even if the conservative majority's interpretation of the law also is plausible, it is a blow to employees victimized by all forms of workplace bias — not only because of gender, but also factors such as race and national origin.
Legal experts say that in response, workers are likely to file discrimination lawsuits more quickly, to beat the deadline. That would cost businesses more and could further clog up the courts.
In almost every case, six months is an unrealistically short period of time to discover discrimination in pay. The justices could have done what the Constitution clearly empowers them to do: throw out the 180-day rule as illegally restrictive. The Democratic majority in Congress needs to act now, with dispatch, to amend the law so that workers treated unfairly can obtain reasonable justice in the courts.
(c) 2007, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
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