Alabama senators oppose Ledbetter wage bill

Published 8:28 am Saturday, January 24, 2009

WASHINGTON — Alabama native Lilly Ledbetter’s crusade for equal pay may have become a cause celebre in some quarters, but Alabama’s all-male congressional delegation apparently isn’t moved.

All but one of the state’s lawmakers is opposing legislation named after Ledbetter that would give women and other workers more time to file lawsuits for wage discrimination.

Sens. Richard Shelby of Tuscaloosa and Jeff Sessions of Mobile were among the 36 Republicans who opposed the Senate version Thursday night. Earlier this month, Rep. Artur Davis, a Democrat from Birmingham, was alone among Alabama’s seven House members in supporting a similar measure.

The bill still appears poised to become law after easily passing both chambers.

Ledbetter, a 70-year-old grandmother, has become a hero among women’s groups and labor organizations.

Championing her cause with a thick Alabama drawl, she also has become something of a celebrity. She was highlighted in one of President Barack Obama’s campaign ads and, more recently, rode with Obama on the last leg of his train trip to this week’s inauguration in Washington.

In an interview Friday, she said she had personally lobbied some of the Alabama lawmakers and is disappointed that she isn’t getting more support from her home state. She said the opponents are siding with car manufacturers and other big businesses in Alabama.

“I have no idea how they can be so callous,” she said. “I think they’ve lost touch with what it’s like in the real world … We are a state where income is low. It takes husbands and wives both working to hold on to being a middle-class family.”

Critics of the bill say it’s nothing against Ledbetter. They argue the legislation simply goes too far and could lead to an onslaught of lawsuits.

“The bill essentially ends the statute of limitations contained in existing employment law,” Shelby said. “While I believe that workplace discrimination is simply unacceptable, the complete elimination of the statute of limitations creates an unreasonable burden for both employees and employers.”

Ledbetter spent nearly 20 years working at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden. At the end of her career, she sued the company when she discovered she was being paid less than male peers doing the same work.

A jury sided with Ledbetter, awarding her nearly $4 million. But an appeals court overturned the verdict, saying she had waited too long to begin her lawsuit. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision, which says an employee must sue for discrimination within 180 days of the decision involving pay that’s in question.

But Ledbetter said she had no idea she was making less than her male counterparts until far beyond that deadline, when someone left an anonymous note in her mailbox.

The legislation moving through Congress would allow workers to file suits within 180 days of receiving their last affected paychecks.

Ledbetter, who lives in Jacksonville, Ala., was in the Capitol to watch the Senate debate Thursday.

She notes that it won’t restore her verdict or force Goodyear to pay her “what it cheated me out of.” But she thinks the bill will help women and minorities in the future, and she hopes it will also spur companies to review their pay scales and make adjustments so all employees are treated fairly.

She said support from Alabama might have been different if the state — which has never elected a woman to Congress — voted more women into office. She hasn’t thought much about running herself, she said, but she plans to stay involved in politics.