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No, there won’t be a flood of equal pay lawsuits in Texas

There wasn’t one before, when the federal Lilly Ledbetter Act passed. There’s no reason to believe there will be one if a state version of the Ledbetter law is approved.

Candidates for statewide office have wrangled recently over an effort to address sex-based wage discrimination by extending the window for lawsuits. But as the campaigns have kicked up dust, the issue has gotten cloudy.

Opponents of the proposed Texas Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Gov. Rick Perry vetoed last year, say it duplicated federal law and would increase unfounded lawsuits. Meanwhile, Democrats say conservatives are standing in the way of equal pay for women.

Experience with the federal law, which was enacted in 2009, suggests both claims are overblown. The federal law hasn’t brought about a flood of frivolous discrimination charges. But there’s little evidence that the pay gap between men and women has narrowed.

The issue of equal pay is important, but the Ledbetter act is “a very narrow fix,” said University of Texas professor Joseph Fishkin, who teaches discrimination law. Among the reasons it hasn’t had much impact, he said, are that pay gaps are driven in part by difference in education and types of job. But the fight, Fishkin said, is nonetheless significant.

“This has become an argument between the parties about equal pay in general. That’s a good discussion to have,” he said. “I don’t think the Ledbetter act is a cure-all, but it is a focal point. The politics go beyond this bill, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

[…]

“There’s no indication that the Ledbetter act would increase lawsuits,” said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president of education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center, which supported the federal measure. “It hasn’t at the federal level, and there’s no indication that it would do so in Texas. It certainly wouldn’t increase the number of lawsuits without merit.”

The number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which handles claims of wage discrimination on the federal level, didn’t increase substantially after President Barack Obama signed the Ledbetter law.

Data from the EEOC going back to 1997 shows that an average of 250 charges a year originated in Texas before the act passed. Afterward, the state averaged 259. The most came in 2002, when 339 sex-based wage discrimination charges originated in Texas.

The charges represent complaints made under both the Equal Pay Act of 1964, which targets sex-based wage discrimination specifically, and broader provisions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin.

The numbers don’t include every charge filed, but they do present a picture of the Ledbetter act’s minimal impact on the volume of sex-based wage discrimination charges. Though women filing under the Equal Pay Act don’t have to go through the commission, “many charging parties do,” said EEOC spokeswoman Justine Lisser.

The Ledbetter act reinstated a long-standing position by the commission that the 180-day time frame to file wage discrimination lawsuits starts over with each individual discriminatory paycheck, Lisser said, explaining the lack of an increase in charges.

Not really a whole lot to add to this. Litigation is never an easy path to take, and hand-wringing about “frivolous” lawsuits, especially in a state as hostile to (non-corporate) plaintiffs as Texas, is just fearmongering. The reason a state law is needed when a federal law exists, as Katherine Haenschen patiently explains to Matt Mackowiak, is that a state law makes bringing a suit just a little easier for someone who has been wronged. Not easy, mind you, just easier. Fixing the underlying problem will take a lot more of that, and most of the things that will be needed to accomplish that will likely be even less palatable to Mackowiak and the interests he represents. No one ever said life was fair, fellas.

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