Fair Pay Act, Nine Years Later

Nine years after the Fair Pay Act was signed into law, workplace-equity advocates say the country has a long way to go to close the gender pay gap.
By: | January 29, 2018 • 3 min read
Equality between man and woman concept with beam scales and sign

Nine years ago today, then-President Barack Obama was surrounded by lawmakers and women’s-rights advocates in the East Room of the White House as he signed his first piece of legislation: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The ceremony came just nine days into Obama’s tenure and fulfilled his campaign promise to address the gender pay gap.

While data varies, many advocates cite a 20-percent salary gap between male and female workers in the U.S., a number that has stayed relatively steady, despite efforts like the Fair Pay Act.

That legislation was prompted by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court finding that the clock for the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an employment-discrimination lawsuit starts ticking the day an employer makes the alleged discriminatory wage decision. The ruling came after Ledbetter sued longtime employer Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which she said was paying her nearly 40-percent less than male counterparts.

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In response to the SCOTUS ruling, the Obama-endorsed legislative approach amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to clarify that the 180-day window essentially resets with every paycheck that was affected by an alleged discriminatory wage decision.

“The law set back the understanding of who was able to bring a claim and the timeframe to the understanding that people had had since 1963 [when the Equal Pay Act was passed] until it got out whack [with the SCOTUS ruling],” says Ariane Hegewisch, Institute for Women’s Policy Research program director for employment and earnings.

The legislation itself didn’t necessarily lead to a cascade of new discrimination filings—since it essentially codified what had been accepted practice prior to the 2007 decision—but rather served as a significant jumping-off point for a national discussion on pay equity.

“It really sent—and was intended to send—the message that unequal pay is not acceptable,” Hegewisch says about the Ledbetter legislation. “At a time when women are more likely to have higher levels of educational attainment and be in the workplace almost as much as men, this made clear that persistent unequal pay is neither just not comprehensible, really.”

While the Lilly Ledbetter Act was a symbolic win, it also prompted action, Hegewisch notes. There has been an “explosion” of state-level initiatives aimed at reducing the gender pay gap.

“There have been some new approaches such as barring salary-history discussions before job offers are made, and also some attempts to remedy the way the Equal Pay Act is framed in terms of what is or is not a legitimate reason for paying men women differently. There have been lots of attempts at the state level to find better remedies for encouraging companies to provide equal pay.”

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