Court ruling shouldn't stand

May 31, 2007

The Supreme Court this week took a tough line on American workers who suspect they are being paid less because of discrimination. The court's interpretation of a federal law amounts to this: An employee is expected to challenge the discriminatory pay within six months of its being set, even though the worker may be unaware that he or she is receiving less pay for similar work.

How preposterous. Payroll information isn't common knowledge in the workplace.

Congress needs to right this wrong by clarifying Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that workers have ample time to contest discrimination in pay that they may learn about years later.

The court's 5-4 ruling came in a case filed by Lilly M. Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala. Of the 16 managers, she was the only woman, and she was paid less in salary than her male colleagues, including those with less tenure. She suspected years after she started at the plant in 1979 that she was earning less than her peers did and tried to work it out on the job. Just before retiring in 1998, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She won in court, lost at the appellate level, and appealed to the Supreme Court.

But the high court ruled against Ms. Ledbetter, saying she had filed her challenge too late. The majority cited the law's requirement that employees file a complaint within 180 days "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." But as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rightly pointed out in her dissent, it's unlikely in workplaces today that employees know each other's salaries. And if an employee does know of a pay disparity, it's only over time - through future raises - that the same worker might suspect discrimination is to blame.

Women nationally and in Maryland continue to earn less than men for doing similar work. A study released last month by the American Association of University Women found that college-educated women earned 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned within a year of graduation and 69 percent of men's salaries 10 years after college. In Maryland, women in 2005 earned nearly 18 percent less than the average pay for men in the state, a study by the Institute of Women's Policy Research found.

The Supreme Court's narrow interpretation of Title VII undermines efforts to wipe out pay discrimination in the workplace. Congress shouldn't let it stand.

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