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Public Statements

Highway Technical Corrections Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

HIGHWAY TECHNICAL CORRECTIONS ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - April 16, 2008)


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, earlier this month, we honored the 40th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Each year on this anniversary we get together and speak glowingly of Dr. King's life and work. These words are important; make no mistake. But even more important than honoring Dr. King with words is honoring Dr. King with action. Today, we have the opportunity to do that by passing the Fair Pay Restoration Act.

The right to equal pay for equal work is a fundamental right. Indeed, Dr. King was in Memphis on that fateful day in April 1968 to protest pay discrimination against African-American Memphis sanitation workers. We hope to have this legislation on the floor in the early part of next week. It involves overturning the Ledbetter case, a Supreme Court decision of recent times.

Forty years later, we are still fighting the same fight as Dr. King. We are still trying to empower workers to assert their civil rights.

Over the years, I have been proud to stand with the majority of the Congress for justice and fairness by passing strong bipartisan laws against pay discrimination. In 1963, we passed the Equal Pay Act. We followed that in 1964 with the landmark Civil Rights Act. Then we passed the Age Discrimination Act, then the Americans With Disabilities Act. Most recently, we passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991. All these laws protected workers from pay discrimination and have made our country a stronger, better, and fairer land.

These laws are just words on a page of a lawbook if workers can't get into court when employers break the law. To bring these words to life, we must today continue the work Dr. King started. This effort is necessary because last May the Supreme Court undermined the fundamental protections against pay discrimination. In the Ledbetter decision, the Court imposed serious obstacles in the path of workers seeking to enforce their rights.

Ledbetter was a textbook case of pay discrimination. Lilly Ledbetter, whom I have had the honor to meet, was one of a few women supervisors at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Gadsen, AL. She worked at the plant for almost two decades, consistently demonstrating that a woman can do a job traditionally done by men. She put up with teasing and taunting from her mail coworkers, but she persevered and consistently gave the company a fair day's work for what she thought was a fair day's pay. What she didn't know, however, was that Goodyear wasn't living up to its end of the bargain.

For almost two decades, the company used discriminatory evaluations to pay her less than her male colleagues who performed exactly the same work. The jury saw the injustice in Goodyear's treatment of Ms. Ledbetter and awarded her full damages. But five members of the Supreme Court ignored that injustice and held that Ms. Ledbetter was entitled to nothing at all--nothing at all--saying she was too late in filing her claim.

Under the rule in the Ledbetter case, Ms. Ledbetter would have had to file her claim within a few months of when Goodyear first started discriminating against her. Never mind that Ms. Ledbetter didn't know about the discrimination when it first began. Never mind that she had no means to learn of the discrimination because Goodyear kept salary information confidential. Never mind that Goodyear's discrimination against Ms. Ledbetter continued each and every time it gave her a smaller paycheck than it gave her male colleagues. The rule imposed by the Supreme Court reversed decades of precedent in the courts of appeal, it overturned the policy of the EEOC under Democratic and Republican administrations, and it upset the Nation's accepted definition of what is right.

This chart shows that the paycheck accrual rule was the law of the land prior to Ledbetter. In all these areas, these are the courts of appeal decisions that would have helped Ms. Ledbetter to recover. These areas are the areas where the EEOC demonstrates the paycheck accrual rule under EEOC policy, as well as these others. This small area in here shows what is now known in the Supreme Court decision as the Ledbetter decision. But this is the way the law of the land had been for years prior to this judgment and this decision.

The rule imposed by the Supreme Court reversed the decades of precedent in the courts of appeal, it overturned the policy of the EEOC under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it upset the Nation's accepted definition as to what is fair and right.

The Court's decision turned back the clock on civil rights. Every year, thousands of workers suffer pay discrimination. The Ledbetter decision will hurt workers alleging discrimination of every kind: Sex, race, national origin, age, and disability. This chart shows 5,700 pay discrimination charges that have been brought. These here are on disability, discrimination on the basis of disability, after we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The dark green is on gender discrimination. The lighter green is on race discrimination; discrimination on the basis of race. This is national origin in here: 588. This is discrimination on age. All these cases--5,700--are based upon the pay discrimination that has crossed the country.

This is a real challenge. This doesn't represent the hundreds of thousands--hundreds of thousands--of cases of people who don't know about it. This is what is happening in this country. This is what is going to continue to happen unless we overturn the Ledbetter decision.

The Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter gives employers free rein to continue to discriminate and leaves workers powerless to stop it. The result defies both justice and common sense. We must act to restore the decency and fairness to our Nation's civil rights laws.

The bipartisan Fair Pay Restoration Act will restore the clear intent of Congress. That is the legislation we will have on the floor to act on this next week. It provides a reasonable rule that reflects how pay discrimination actually occurs in the workplace. It links the time for filing a pay discrimination claim to the date a worker receives a discriminatory paycheck--not when an employer makes a discriminatory decision. Workers shouldn't have to be mindreaders in order to protect themselves from discrimination. Workers who aren't allowed to share information about their wages shouldn't be rendered powerless to combat discrimination. This bill recognizes that workers who receive a discriminatory check today should not be out of time to file a claim simply because the employer managed to hide its illegal behavior initially.

This legislation holds no surprises. It puts the law back to what it was on the day before the Supreme Court's Ledbetter decision. So we know this legislation is fair and it is workable. There would not be any unexpected consequences. Courts would not be overwhelmed. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has said this bill would not increase litigation costs by much and businesses would not be blindsided. We are restoring what the law was previously. Most importantly, the Fair Pay Restoration Act makes employers accountable for violating the law. Under the Supreme Court's rule, if an employer can keep its discriminatory ways secret for 6 months, it gets a free pass. Do my colleagues hear me? If they are able to keep this secret that they are discriminating on any one of these bases--any of the bases we have mentioned, including age or disability, national origin, sex or race--in any of these areas, if they are able to do that and keep that a secret for 6 months, the employers get the free pass.

They can continue to discriminate and its victims are powerless to stop the unfair treatment. It only makes sense that, if the violation continues, the right to challenge it should continue. No one should get a free pass to break the law.

The Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter took us backward in time. It takes us farther away from our ideal of a fair and just workplace for all Americans. We have too much progress still to make, and we cannot afford a step back. With this legislation, we can at least make up the ground we have lost.

That is why this legislation has such widespread support. This chart indicates the various groups. A wide array of civil rights groups, labor unions, and religious and disability rights groups support this legislation. It includes the American Association of People with Disabilities. AARP understands what is happening in terms of age discrimination; Business and Professional Women understand the discrimination taking place against women; NAACP; the United Auto Workers and other labor organizations, too; National Congress of Black Women; Religious Action Center understands the moral implications of this issue; U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, and others. They all support this legislation. Many businesses also support the bill, including the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, as I said. All companies that play by the rules and treat workers fairly should support this legislation.

Workers have lived for almost a year with the inequity of the Ledbetter decision. It is time to stand up for the right to fair pay. As Dr. King said so eloquently after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

Many people felt that after the passage of the civil rights bill, we had accomplished everything. We didn't have anything else to do and we would miraculously move into a new era of freedom.

But when we opened our eyes, we came to see that the civil rights bill, as marvelous as it is, is only the beginning of a new day and not the end of a journey.

If this bill is not implemented in all of its dimensions, it will mean nothing, and all of its eloquent words will be as sounding brass on a tinkling cymbal. We must take this bill and lift it from thin paper to thick action, and go all out, all over this Nation, to implement it.

It is time to hold employers accountable for their unlawful conduct. It is time to turn the clock forward on civil rights, instead of backward. It is time to pass the Fair Pay Restoration Act.

A final comment. This is a remarkable woman, Lily Ledbetter. Here is her quote:

And according to the Court, if you don't figure things out right away, the company can treat you like a second class citizen for the rest of your career. That isn't right.

She played by the rules. She worked hard and provided for her family and was being discriminated against. Here she is again:

I hope that Congress won't let this happen to anyone else. I would feel that this long fight was worthwhile if, at least at the end of it, I knew that I played a part in getting the law fixed so that it can provide real protection to real people in the real world.

We hear a lot of speeches in this body about the importance of work and paying people fairly. We hear speeches on both sides of the aisle about this. Here we have the classic example of a hard-working, decent, fairminded woman, who is trying to provide for a family, is playing by the rules, and she is getting shortchanged on the basis of doing equal work but not getting equal pay. She finds that out and pursues her rights and receives damages, under the rule of law in most of the States; and the Supreme Court, by a narrow margin of one, makes a decision that because she didn't know about it at the time this was started, when there was no chance in the world she would know about it because pay records are kept confidential, she is going to lose out on the fair pay she is entitled to under the protection of the law we have passed.

This body has gone on record time in and time out about fair wages for their work. We are going to have another opportunity in the next week to see whether we are going to continue this.

Let me finally say we are going back to the previous law. This isn't a new, bold idea carving out terms of the future. This is the way the law was. We are restoring the law, restoring the protections. This should have passed unanimously. How can Members of this body say no to restoring the law to what it was in the overwhelming majority of the jurisdictions of this country, on the fundamental issue of fairness that applies to virtually all workers, applies to men and women of color, men and women of disability, men and women of age, applies to national origin, and applies across the board? What are we afraid of?

We will have the chance to take this up and to take action on it and to call the roll, and the American people will understand who in this body is for fairness and treating American workers right, and who is for going back in terms of the Nation's fundamental commitment to decency and honoring hard-working people, who should be entitled to equal pay for equal work. We will find out when we call the roll the early part of next week.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

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