Obama Pitches Equal Pay to Win Women Even as Charges Drop

Obama Pitches Equal Pay Law to Win Women Even as Complaints Drop
President Barack Obama hands Lilly Ledbetter a pen he used to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington in 2009. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Some days, it may seem that President Barack Obama’s running mate is Lilly Ledbetter.

Ledbetter is a former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. manager who sued the firm after discovering near the end of a 19-year career that she was being paid more than $13,000 less than three male colleagues. Her case was thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled she missed a deadline for filing the lawsuit.

In eight of his last 18 campaign events, Obama reminded voters that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides employees more time to file such lawsuits, was the first piece of legislation he signed into law when he took office in 2009, and its namesake is now campaigning for his re-election.

Yet there were fewer cases charging sex-based wage discrimination last year than the year before the law was signed, and the wage gap was wider in 2010 than it was in 2007.

“The bill did not change the fact that women make 77 cents on the dollar that a man makes,” said Ledbetter, who is working with the White House to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act that would enable employees to find out what their colleagues are earning.

At a Washington hotel on April 5 Obama told 250 donors: “Change is the first legislation that I signed into law, the Lilly Ledbetter Act that has a very simple principle -- women should get paid an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work, and our daughters should be treated just like our sons when it comes to the workplace.”

Front Row Seat

Ledbetter, 74, had a front row seat at an April 27 Obama fundraiser hosted by the Women’s Leadership Forum and Women in Washington for Obama, at which the president called her his “dear friend” and a “courageous woman.”

First Lady Michelle Obama told donors May 1 in Las Vegas that her husband “signed this bill because he knows that closing that pay gap will mean the difference between women losing $50, $100, $500 for each paycheck, or having that money in their pockets to buy gas and groceries and put clothes on the backs of their kids.”

Obama is using the Ledbetter law to shore up his lead among women -- an advantage crucial to his re-election prospects. Female voters made up 53 percent of the electorate in 2008 and Obama carried their vote by 13 points. Obama led presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney 49 to 39 percent among women, according to an April 11 - 17 Quinnipiac University survey of 2,577 registered voters.

Gender Gap

Among all those polled, 52 percent said Obama would do a better job handling women’s issues, compared with 32 percent who picked Romney. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 1.9 percentage points for its overall sample.

Romney’s campaign is seeking to shift the focus from Ledbetter to economic troubles women are experiencing under Obama. While women lost fewer jobs during the recession that ended in June 2009, the jobless rate for males 16 years old or older improved by 2.3 percentage points since then and barely budged for women during the same period.

In an April 16 interview with ABC News, Romney said he has no “intention of changing” Ledbetter if elected.

The law reversed the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. to extend the time a worker can sue an employer for sex-based wage discrimination to as many as 180 days from the last discriminatory paycheck, instead of 180 days since the first paycheck reflecting unequal wages.

Cases Decline

In 2009, when Obama signed the legislation, there were 2,268 sex-based wage discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission either under the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was amended by the Ledbetter Act, or both. Because the law was retroactive, the EEOC reviewed pending cases at the time of the Supreme Court decision and reinstated claims for more than 1,100 people. In 2011, the number of complaints went down to 2,191.

Meanwhile, the pay gap in 2010 showed that women earned 77.4 percent of men’s salaries, down from 77.8 percent in 2007 before the recession hit.

“The White House is not disingenuous about their equal pay bona fides but I think sometimes Ledbetter is overstated,” said Lisa Maatz, the director of Public Policy and Government Relations at Washington-based American Association of University Women. Maatz said that while Obama is “right to claim this as part of his legacy,” whenever “anyone says the Ledbetter bill ensures that women get equal pay for equal work, that’s not accurate.”

Narrow Interpretations

Judges who are narrowly interpreting the Ledbetter law, the lack of transparency about pay, and a sluggish economy are reasons why Ledbetter hasn’t had more of an impact, said lawyers and advocates.

Women are afraid of losing their jobs if they complain, especially as the economy recovers from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, said Charles A. Sullivan, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who has represented employees in pay discrimination suits.

“If you’ve got a job and things are going pretty well except you think you may be the victim of pay discrimination, maybe this is not the best time in the world to rattle that cage,” Sullivan said.

Despite the White House pitches, the law does little to put money back in women’s pockets, said advocates of the measure.

Income Privacy

“Even with the Ledbetter Act, I’ve found many employees lack information with which to compare their compensation,” said Joseph Sellers, who served as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in Beck v. Boeing Co., which included more than 28,000 women employees at Boeing facilities in Washington charging sex discrimination.

To fill that information void, the administration is seeking passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, created the National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force to coordinate the federal government’s efforts to enforce existing protections, and developed a Labor Department contest for a computer application to provide workers with more information about equal pay and negotiating their salaries.

Tina Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and the first lady’s chief of staff, said the administration has successfully delivered a “nuanced” message when talking about Ledbetter.

“A lot of times you hear the president and the first lady talking about the Lilly Ledbetter Act helping women get equal pay and people sometimes skip over the fact that he said ‘help,’ versus saying it ‘gets equal pay,’” she said.

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