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One of the defining fights of women’s history in the U.S. is the right to work on equal terms.
It’s fair to say that the federal government has not always been an ally in that effort, but there are times when — even inadvertently — it has helped advance toward that goal.
As an employment attorney who specializes in discrimination, I’ve worked with these laws closely for years. Here’s a closer look at eight laws that helped women make history in the workforce.
Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938
Although not targeted to women, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has done much to help women earn a living wage. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill in 1938, the law set the minimum wage at 25 cents (it has since risen to $7.25 an hour). The minimum wage affects more women than men, particularly women who are single and head of household.
The current minimum wage has failed to keep up with cost of living and does not offer a living wage for many women working in high-cost areas. Still, it remains a crucial part of the federal laws protecting the interest of women in the workplace and served as a model for many state laws requiring higher minimum wages, like California, New York and the District of Columbia.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963
The Equal Pay Act makes it explicitly illegal to pay women a lower wage than men simply based on sex. Though hardly a cure-all, the law offers a powerful tool for women to either file a claim against their employers for unequal pay based on sex with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or go directly to court. If they win, unfairly paid employees can receive back wages, future wages and attorney fees. (Note that women can also bring equal pay claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act discussed below, though the standard to win an equal pay claim under Title VII is a bit more difficult.)
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
The most important law protecting women from workplace discrimination came about by accident. As Congress was debating an anti-discrimination bill, detractors proposed an amendment adding sex as a category, believing it would be a “poison pill” that would sink its chances. Instead, to their horror, it was adopted, and passed into law.
Today, this bill is the centerpiece when it comes to workplace discrimination law. It makes it illegal for an employer with 15 or more employees to discriminate on the basis of sex, as well as race, religion or national origin.
Before the enactment of this law, it was perfectly legal for an employer to outright refuse to hire women. This law also outlaws the creation of a hostile-work environment based on sex and sexual harassment. Title VII also makes illegal discrimination based on gender stereotyping.
For instance, an employer cannot legally refuse to promote a woman because she has children and therefore, in the eyes of management, needs to spend more time with them.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Action of 1978
Although Title VII explicitly prevented discrimination based on sex, the Supreme Court in two cases in 1974 held that insurance policies excluding coverage for pregnant employees did not violate Title VII. Congress took a dim view of those holdings and passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) in 1978, making discrimination based on pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions illegal under the PDA.
The PDA inspired numerous state laws that also outlaw discrimination based on pregnancy. And if a woman faces complications with her pregnancy, theAmericans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) can come into play. While not directly protecting women, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, which can include complications that arise during some pregnancies.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993
Prior to 1993, there was no right to take leave from a company to care for a newborn or adopted child. If you had a baby and needed to take time off, an employer could legally give your job to someone else.
In 1993, the first bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton was theFamily and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under this law, a woman working for a company with 50 or more employers can in many instances take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn child or newly adopted child. (Note that the leave is also available for men.)
While the United States can certainly do better by providing paid leave like every other developed nation, the FMLA is the framework upon which many proposals for paid leave are based. And, until our country passes paid leave (there are numerous proposed federal efforts to do so), many women are able to at least take time off to care for a child without fear of losing their job.
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994
Under theUniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), employers must protect the jobs of active duty or reserve military personnel when they are deployed to active duty. Upon return from duty, they are entitled to have their jobs back at the same pay and benefits rate that they would have been entitled to had they never left the position.
While not aimed specifically at women, this law provides important protection to women who are enlisting in the armed services at an ever-increasing rate and are now routinely deployed to battlefields around the globe.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010
The Affordable Care Act, also referred to as Obamacare, requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide covered women with time and a private space to express breast milk while still at work.
The law is limited, unfortunately, in that it covers only women considered “non-exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This leaves out thousands of women in management position or who have even low-level supervisory authority. Nevertheless, the law is a first-of-its-kind in the United States provides offers a floor on which to build.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, an unexpected benefit for the victims of sexual harassment found its way into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which made significant changes to the Internal Revenue Code.With an almost continuous barrage of news stories about sexual abusers getting published, one question many people wondered was why it took so long for the public to learn about the allegations. A major reason for all the secrecy had to do with nondisclosure agreements.
The TCJA tackled this issue through the inclusion of § 13307(a). This provision addressed the fact that monetary payments made by businesses to settle claims of sexual harassment or sexual abuse were tax deductible as a business expense.
Under the TCJA, businesses can continue to take this tax deduction, but only if the settlement does not include a nondisclosure agreement. The TCJA also prohibits the tax deductibility of legal fees incurred during the settlement process.
Because many victims of sexual harassment are women, this particular section of the TCJA may have a positive impact on women in the workplace. Specifically, it makes the cost of sexual harassment more expensive, or, at the very least, makes it easier for women to learn about potential workplace predators.
March 13, 2019 at 11:03PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs