By: Abigail Bar-Lev, FellowPosted on January 29, 2015 Issues: Equal Pay and the Wage Gap Workplace

“I thought I was earning good pay. I thought they were treating me fairly.” Those are the words of Lilly Ledbetter, whose story and Supreme Court case eight years ago opened many eyes to the egregious pay discrimination that continues across the American workforce.  Her story even moved Congress to act. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama six years ago today as one of his first official acts as President, restored longstanding law and helped to ensure that individuals subjected to unlawful pay discrimination are able to effectively assert their rights under the federal anti-discrimination laws. The Act operated to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court, which would have required individuals to file claims for pay discrimination within 180 days of the first instance of discrimination—even where the employee does not learn about the discrimination until years or decades later, as what happened to Lilly Ledbetter. Under the Act, each discriminatory paycheck (rather than simply the original decision to discriminate) resets the 180-day limit to file a claim.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act has been a critical tool for victims of pay discrimination and it has reestablished employer accountability for pay discrimination. And yet, the Act is just one of many tools needed to rectify pay discrimination and close the gender-based wage gap, which remains at about 78 cents on the dollar.

One of those tools goes back to Lilly Ledbetter’s surprise—“I thought I was earning good pay. I thought they were treating me fairly”—at discovering that she was a victim of pay discrimination. Why did she have to wait nearly twenty years to discover that she was being paid less than her male coworkers, including those to whom she was senior? Why, in the end, did she end up having to rely on a coworker’s anonymous note to alert her to the pay inequities? Well, Goodyear had a pay secrecy policy; the company prohibited its employees from discussing or even asking about pay. Therefore, as the years ticked by, the distance between Lilly Ledbetter’s paycheck and those of her male coworkers’ continued to grow entirely unbeknownst to and undiscoverable by Lilly Ledbetter herself. You can’t fix a problem you don’t know about.

Therefore, one critical tool that would help to bolster the effectiveness of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would be the elimination of pay secrecy policies. Over half of all workers (including 62 percent of all private sector workers) say that their employer either directly prohibits or discourages them from discussing or inquiring about pay. And yet, we know that when employees can discuss their salaries without fear of retaliation or retribution, the wage gap shrinks. Take the federal government, where salaries are easily discoverable and the wage gap is smaller than it is overall; according to a 2009 report [PDF], women in the federal government were paid 89 percent of what men received, compared to 78 percent in the workplace as a whole.

We finished up 2014 at the Center by submitting comments on a proposal from the Department of Labor implementing President Obama’s executive order to eliminate pay secrecy policies in federal contracts. The year 2014 also could have been a time when we saw the Paycheck Fairness Act pass through Congress—an Act that would strengthen the Equal Pay Act and bolster the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by, among other provisions, prohibiting employer retaliation against employees for discussing pay. And yet Congress couldn’t get it together, and the bill was blocked by a handful of senators. Where Congress has failed to act, President Obama took the lead, saying, “Pay secrecy fosters discrimination and we should not tolerate it—not in federal contracting or anywhere else.”

And yet, as we begin 2015 by celebrating an act of Congress that took a strong step forward for women and families when they passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, wouldn’t it be the perfect time for Congress to once again act in that same spirit? The spirit that says a rising tide lifts all boats. The spirit that says everyone should be treated equally, and that women’s work is not worth less than men’s. This is the spirit behind President Obama’s executive order to eliminate pay secrecy policies in federal contracts, and it’s the spirt behind the Paycheck Fairness Act.  Let’s work this year to continue the legacy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to eliminate pay secrecy policies and make Paycheck Fairness a reality.