8 milestones of expanding workplace discrimination protection

Here we look at how Title VII and other acts have evolved over the last 50 years to protect a larger and larger slice of the population from discrimination in the workplace

Labor Day 2014 offers workers around the United States a well-deserved break, a time to reflect on the year so far, and an opportunity to give thanks for the many right we as American laborers enjoy. This week we’ll be taking an extensive look at labor and employment issues around the nation in honor of the upcoming holiday.

While employees’ rights are protected by a patchwork of laws enforced by various authorities, perhaps no rule is more important to the promotion of equal employment rights than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Signed into law 50 years ago, Title VII explicitly prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin and is a cornerstone of promoting equitable opportunities for all in the United States. Through those five decades, Title VII, other supporting acts and its enforcement body, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have seen a number of changes. Here we’ll take a look at the milestones that have created that have sought to protect the employment rights of all Americans.

1)      July 2, 1964 – Civil Rights Act passed /Equal Employment

Obviously the most important point of any act’s tenure is its ratification into law. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, President elect Lyndon Johnson championed the Act, which had been held up in by the Rules Committee in an effort to bury it. The act was eventually passed and signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.

While the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in nearly every aspect of American life, Title VII specifically targeted the workplace. A year later, on July 2, 1965, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was implemented as the federal body responsible for overseeing Title VII complaints.

2)      1967 – Age Discrimination in Employment Act forbids employment discrimination against anyone at least 40 years of age

While not technically part of Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act further protected American citizens of all types from unfair treatment in the workplace.  The Act prohibited employment discrimination against anyone 40 years or older in the United States, and prevented many types of forced retirement, which has been used to force older workers out of their jobs.

While the Act was originally written in 1961, it did not pass until 1967. The protection is important even today, as older workers report difficult finding new opportunities, especially when they’ve been out of work for an extended period of time.

3)      1972 - Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 allows EEOC to bring civil actions in federal court against private employers

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was charged with investigating instances of workplace discrimination when it was originally founded in 1965, it lacked any authority to bring suit against private employers.

That changed in 1972, giving the commission teeth, and allowing it to enforce the rules of Title VII and other similar acts in addition to simply investigating and recommending action.

4)      1978 – The Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbids discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions

Further expanding the verbiage of title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended the rule to prohibit use of sexual discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. This includes hiring decisions made based of a visible pregnancy, as well as the protection of certain benefits that may extend specifically to pregnant women.

As a demonstration of how workplace discrimination protection continues to evolve, the EEOC released new guidelines earlier this year that changed the ways in which pregnant women’s rights were protected at the workplace.

The new guidelines cover pregnancy-related issues under the American with Disabilities Act, clarifying a number of conflicting federal regulations and case laws. Previously, pregnant women had been protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, but the law had been implemented in varying ways, and had been successfully rebuffed in several lower court decisions.

However, these rules were not passed unanimously, and several high profile cases involving pregnant workers could make it as far as the Supreme Court in the next session, potentially changing the protection profile again.

5)      1980 - General Tel. Co. of the Northwest, Inc. v. EEOC allows EEOC to seek class-wide relief without being certified as the class representative

While class action lawsuits were not as common when the Civil Rights Act was passed as they are today, they have come to make up around a quarter of the EEOC’s case load, and have changed the way the commission litigates.

In 1980 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in General Tel. Co. of the Northwest, Inc. v. EEOC ruledthat the EEOC operated outside ofthe typical constraints of the Federal Rules of Civil procedure, allowing it to file class-action lawsuits as a representative of a class, even in case when it itself was not part of that class.

According Natalie Pierce, a shareholder at Littler Mendelson, that change “makes it a lot easier for them (EEOC) to file class-type discrimination claims against employers. The General Telephone case was really a big deal in that it allowed the EEOC to go further than private litigants.”

6)      1990 – Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 expands EEOC’s powers in prohibiting discrimination based on disability

While the Civil Rights Act focused on discrimination based on race and nationality, likely due to its prominence as a social issue in the 1960’s, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act expanded that protection to apply citizens with physical and mental disabilities.

Under this new act, in most cases employers cannot use a person’s disability against them when making hiring and firing decision. In addition the act required the need to make accommodations for disabled workers.

In an interview with InsideCounsel earlier this year, Joan Ackerstein, partner and national director of litigation at the law firm Jackson Lewis, said, “Employees have become more sophisticated in making the claim that their employer has failed to accommodate them and failed to engage in the interactive process,” Ackerstein says. “Once an employee goes to the employer and says, ‘I have a disability and this is what I need,’ an employer really can’t simply say ‘no,’ and they’ve historically said, ‘we’d love to help you but we can’t do that.’”

7)      1991 – Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows possibility of compensatory and punitive damages in discrimination cases

While the Civil Rights Act of 1991 changed a number of procedural issues within the original version, bringing many of them into the modern age, perhaps the most important change was the decision to authorize plaintiffs to recover punitive damages.

“Prior to 1991, there was lots of Title VII litigation, and you had occasional EEOC litigation. But they were all non-jury cases, and the damages were back pay,” says Michael S. Burkhardt, partner at Morgan, Lewis and Bockius. “The reality is, once the statute was amended, and you added the compensatory and punitive damage aspect of the claims, the risk profile for companies got much higher.”

Now more than ever employees who felt they were discriminated again had an option by which to hold employers accountable.

8)      2012 – EEOC rules that transgendered workers are a protected class

Increasingly, employee protection is expanding to not only protect gender, but sexual identity as well.  In April of 2012 The EEOC ruled that in the case Macy v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives intentionally discriminating against a an individual based on their gender identity is actionable under Title VII.

The ruling further expands the power of the EEOC and commits Title VII to further protecting the rights of workers of all types throughout the United States.

In a similar vein, President Barrack Obama in July, signed an executive order aimed at protecting LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals from discrimination in the workplace. The order applies to federal employers and contractors, but employers that receive federal funding are taking a close look at the order to determine if it applies to them. 

   

Managing Editor

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Chris DiMarco

Chris DiMarco, Managing Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, has a background in multimedia production with previous involvement in projects in which he developed and created content for...

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