News Releases

Murray Urges Support for Bill Protecting Workers' Rights to Challenge Discrimination in the Workplace

Jan 14 2009

Bill would reverse Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) delivered a speech on the Senate floor urging her colleagues to support a bill that would restore workers’ rights to challenge discrimination in the workplace by reversing the Supreme Court’s dangerous decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear.

An employee of Goodyear Tire Co., Lilly Ledbetter sued after learning that she had been a victim of pay discrimination for most of her 19 years at the company.  In its 2007 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed 5-4 that Ledbetter had been discriminated against.  But it ruled that she should have sued within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck – even though she didn’t know about the discrimination until many years later.

In her speech, Senator Murray argued that the decision would severely hurt a worker’s ability to challenge discrimination.  She added that it violates Congress’ intent and set the country back 40 years in the fight for equal opportunity in the workplace.  And Murray urged her Senate colleagues to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would reverse the Court’s decision and clarify that each discriminatory paycheck is a violation of the law that can be challenged in court.

“The decision was wrong, and we need to take action before it weakens our civil rights laws even further,” Senator Murray said in her speech.  “The truth is that all the laws we pass guaranteeing rights have little meaning if Americans don’t have the ability to challenge discrimination in court.  This case could set a terrible precedent.  We run the risk that anti-discrimination laws will grow weaker – not stronger – if we don’t act.”

The following are Senator Murray’s remarks as prepared for release:

Mr. President, this Senate has a proud history of working across the aisle to pass civil rights laws.   Those historic laws ensure that all people in our nation have equal rights, regardless of race, religion, gender, or national origin.  And I’m proud that because of those laws my daughter now has the right to work in the same jobs – and achieve the same success – as my son.  

But, Mr. President, despite years of progress, we haven’t eliminated unfairness in the workplace.  I believe we should all fight long and hard whenever Americans are denied the ability to fight their rights.  And that’s why I rise today.

Mr. President, with its May 2007 decision, Ledbetter v. Goodyear, the Supreme Court reversed years of progress in the fight for fairness in the workplace.  The decision made it almost impossible for workers who suffer discrimination to seek justice.  It went against Congress’s intent.  And it set us back 40 years in the fight for equal opportunity in the workplace.

The decision was wrong, and we need to take action before it weakens our civil rights laws even further.  So today, as we begin a new Congress and a new Administration, I’m urging my colleagues to support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – to reverse Ledbetter v. Goodyear, and ensure workers again have a fair shot at fighting discrimination.

The Ledbetter Decision Set Workers Back 40 Years

Mr. President, before I describe the bill before us today, I want to say a few words about Lilly Ledbetter and her Supreme Court case.  Lilly Ledbetter worked for Goodyear Tire for 19 years, before she learned that her male counterparts were being paid more for the same work. 

She sued, charging her employers with pay discrimination.  But the Court sided with Goodyear.  It wasn’t because the Court thought she was wrong – they agreed she had been discriminated against.  The Court said she didn’t have the right to sue.  That’s right.  The Court said she should have sued within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck – even if she didn’t know about it until years later.

And it made that ruling despite the fact that courts around the country had – for years – assumed the opposite – that the clock starts ticking after any discriminatory act, including every time a worker’s paid unfairly.

Mr. President, I think that sounds an awful lot like the Supreme Court is asking workers to be mind readers.  It’s unfair – and it’s not what Congress intended when we created the law in the first place.   Lilly Ledbetter hasn’t let the decision go without a fight.  She has been a tireless champion for her rights.  And I want to thank her for everything she has done to raise awareness about her case.

Ledbetter Act Would Reverse the Court Decision

Mr. President, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act before us today would reverse the Court’s unfair decision.  It would allow workers to file a claim within 180 days of any discriminatory paycheck.  And it would again allow workers to discover the facts and to challenge ongoing discrimination – as Congress has always intended.

Pure and simple – it restores a worker’s right to fight for her rights.

The Pay Gap Starts Immediately and it Accumulates Over Years

Mr. President, I also want to take a little bit of time to talk about why it’s so important that we ensure workers have all the tools necessary to fight for their rights.

As I said earlier, what we’re talking about today isn’t just a philosophical issue of rights and discrimination.  The truth is that although we have made tremendous progress in civil rights, there is still a lot of work to be done.  The pay gap is just one example.

Women still make less than men even though they’re doing the same work.  On average, they earn just 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male co-workers.  And the pay gap is even wider for African-American and Latino women.  African-American women earn 67 cents, and Latino women earn just 56 cents for every dollar that a white man makes.

Pay discrimination like this has real and harmful impacts on families – and for our nation as a whole.  It hurts an individual’s ability to earn a living, care for her children, and contribute fully to society.

Yet it’s so deeply ingrained in our society that many jobs dominated by women pay less than jobs dominated by men – even when the work they do is almost the same. 

And the disparity hurts millions of families.  In almost 10 million households, mothers are the only breadwinners.  In many cases, those women are also supporting parents and other extended family members.  And in far too many of these households, women have to struggle to pay for rent, heat, food, and gas.

Think of how much better off families would be if women were paid a wage equal to men – especially as we face this economic crisis, and everyday expenses rise.  Mr. President, if women and men made an equal wage, single working women would have 17 percent more income each year.  Just ensuring that they earn a fair paycheck could cut their poverty rate in half.

We Have to Act to Prevent Rights from Being Eroded

Mr. President, there’s one other issue I want to raise.  Although the Ledbetter case involved gender discrimination, the decision applies to all kinds of discrimination – including religion, race, age, disability, or national origin.

And so, Mr. President, I think it’s only fitting that in the days before we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we are considering this issue today.

The truth is that all the laws we pass guaranteeing rights have little meaning if Americans don’t have the ability to challenge discrimination in court.  This case could set a terrible precedent.  We run the risk that anti-discrimination laws will grow weaker – not stronger – if we don’t act.

So I urge my colleagues to support this bill, to reverse this unfair decision, restore Congressional intent, and ensure the Senate’s history of protecting civil rights can’t be eroded.