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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Protecting Workers from Discrimination

More on equal pay:

Equal Before Mammon, by James Surowiecki, New Yorker: She was an ordinary middle-class mom who, despite fierce criticism, succeeded in a male-dominated profession. ... She was a woman named Lilly Ledbetter, a former middle manager at a Goodyear plant in Alabama, who appeared at the Democratic Convention to give a human face to the slogan “Equal pay for equal work.”

Ledbetter’s unlikely journey to center stage began in the late nineteen-nineties, when she received an anonymous note revealing the salaries of her fellow-managers, all of whom were men. Although Ledbetter did the same job..., and had more seniority than some of them, they were all being paid considerably more... Ledbetter sued, under the Civil Rights Act, and proved that her lower pay was the result of discrimination... But ... the verdict was overturned on appeal, and then the Supreme Court ruled against her. ...[A]ccording to the Civil Rights Act, Ledbetter’s lawsuit had to be filed within a hundred and eighty days, and the Court ruled that the clock started ticking with the first act of discrimination, almost two decades before Ledbetter found out what was going on.

Ledbetter was out of luck. But the Court did leave open a possibility for others like her: if Congress wanted a more realistic time frame for lawsuits, all it had to do was change the law. And ... that’s precisely what Congress tried to do. Last year, the House passed a bill, named after Ledbetter, that essentially did away with the statute of limitations on pay discrimination, and the Senate was set to do the same until Republicans filibustered it to death.

Protecting workers from discrimination is a fairly uncontroversial idea. So opponents of the bill, who include John McCain, insisted that, while they’re in favor of equal pay, the new law would unleash a flood of frivolous litigation. That’s a familiar excuse, and in this case a threadbare one. There would likely be more lawsuits if the bill was passed—the point, after all, was to allow more people to sue—but there was no reason to expect a deluge, since, before the Court’s decision, it’s probable that most potential litigants had assumed a less stringent interpretation of the time limit anyway. ...

Other opponents of the bill depict it as a stalking horse for the idea of “comparable worth”... But the Lilly Ledbetter bill has nothing to do with comparable worth. ...

Does the Ledbetter bill matter? It’s true that active discrimination is rarer these days than it once was. But ... racial and sex discrimination is still a powerful force in the job market. ...Kerwin Charles and Jonathan Guryan, of the University of Chicago, show... that, under certain reasonable conditions, market competition will not necessarily eradicate discrimination. That may be why, they suggest, the gap between black and white wages is widest in the most prejudiced parts of the U.S.—precisely what you’d expect if businessmen could discriminate and get away with it. ...

[O]pponents of the bill have acted like McCain, proclaiming their support for fair pay while doing their best to insure that workers have a hard time getting it. Maybe it’s time for them to give Americans some straight talk and unveil a new slogan: “Unequal pay for equal work.” It may not be catchy, but at least it’s honest.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 03:06 AM in Economics, Market Failure, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (27)

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