Now that the budget impasse is over (we’ll have more to say on that subject in this coming week’s update,”While California Dreams” ),we are focusing on Women’s Equality Day. This Sunday, August 26th marks the 87th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave women the right to vote after a 75 year struggle. There are many ways to mark the occasion. In California, there are at least two such ways we can ensure that victims of employment discrimination continue to have the opportunity to seek redress in the courts. For that to happen, our legislature should pass Assemblymember Julia Brownley’s AB 435 and Assemblymember Dave Jones’ AB 437 Both of these measures are pending in the California State Senate.
Brownley’s bill, AB 435, specifically extends the statute of limitiations within which women can file suits for gender-based wage discrimination. It requires that all employers maintain their records of wages, wage rates, job classifications and other terms and conditions of employment for five years, and extends the statute of limitations for a civil action to collect back wages to four years, or, in the case of willful misconduct, to five years. The current statute of limitations is two years, unless the violation is willful in which case it is three years.
The Jones bill, AB 437 is necessary because the current US Supreme Court has demonstrated a commitment to overturn, and thus destroy, many hard-fought gains for women, minorities and other “protected classes” of people in this country. One such effort occurred in May of 2007 when the Court voted, by a 5-4 majority, to overturn decades of precedent in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. In doing so, the Supreme Court severely limited workers’ ability to bring pay discrimination claims against employers who break the hard-fought laws prohibiting discriminatory compensation practices on the basis of gender, race or other prohibited criteria.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Lilly Ledbetter had waited too long to sue for pay discrimination despite the fact that she filed a complaint as soon as she received an anonymous note alerting her to the fact that her wages were less than her male counterparts. The Court said that Ledbetter was required to file a complaint within 180 days of the pay decision, regardless of whether she had knowledge of the discrimination or not!(Note: emphasis and comment are those of this author)
In Ms. Ledbetter’s case, she had worked for Goodyear Tire for nearly twenty years. She sued the company after learning that she, the only female supervisor, was the lowest paid supervisor at the facility. She was paid 15-40% less than the male supervisors, even though she had more experience than several of her colleagues. After a jury trial, the 12 local citizens found that her employer had unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of sex.
Regardless, the US Supreme Court ruled that she had filed the complaint too late. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the sole woman on the Court today) called on Congress to correct the Court’s new-found re-interpretation of the discrimination law. Within a month, Congress introduced federal legislation to do just that.
AB 437 is modeled after the federal legislation.
Why is this legislation needed? For the simple reason that the Ledbetter decision ignores workplace realities. Most employees who are the victims of discrimination, don’t learn about the discrimination for years into their employment. Salary information is often kept confidential. And given the latest results here in California (which are consistently felt across the nation) showing that the wage gap between rich and poor is only increasing, it is important that discrimination in employment be tackled head-on.
Here in California we have set the example for decades on workforce equity. We have led the way to snuff out bias, hardship and mistreatment of workers by greedy and biased employers. Ironically, it is many of those same corporate fat-cats, who think nothing of multi-million dollar golden parachutes for their CEO’s, who are opposed to this legislation. They don’t want to be held to standards that insure fairness and accountability against law-breaking policies of discrimination. Examples of those opposed to these measures include the California Building Industry Association (CBIA), the big financial companies through their California Bankers Association and the Car Dealers, through their association, the California Motor Car Dealers, among the usual and predictable others who just don’t like having to be accountable to the public or the people who make their businesses run.
Who are those in support? As one would think, the folks who are committed to equal justice and fairness. Included are organizations supporting Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and Labor. This is another battle pitting those protecting the working people vs. the corporate giants seeking millions in profit and little for the people who get them there.
Times are tough enough for working families. It’s time we made sure the hard-fought protections the people have been able to achieve remain effective. And like so many other important laws, the only way we can ensure accountability is to keep the courthouse doors open to those who have been treated unfairly or unlawfully. It’s time to make sure the hard-working people of California can rely on our system of justice to make sure we are treated fairly. We’ve earned it and our Constitution, no matter how battered or bruised it is these days, entitles us to it.
And in honor of Women’s Equality Day, let us not forget that the symbol of Justice in our country is fittingly a woman, blindfolded, holding the scales of justice in her hands. And to further reinforce that image, remember that our Pledge of Allegiance contains, as its final commitment, “Liberty and Justice for all”. Let us make that the legacy of this year’s Women’s Equality celebration.