Editorial: History of job discrimination

Published: 06-27-2018 9:00 AM

Editor’s Note:This is the third in a series of guest editorials running between now and July 4, our nation’s Independence Day. These essays were solicited by the Franklin County League of Women Voters for the Recorder from several especially knowledgeable and experienced members of our community, about issues as important to America today as they were when our country was born with our forefather’s Declaration of Independence nearly 250 years ago.

Work is so essential to our daily lives and livelihood that the idea that someone would intentionally try to prevent you from working, simply because of the color of your skin, your gender, your age, your national origin or your health and physical status, is unthinkable. Securing work is hard enough without the additional barriers of discrimination. Yet, employment discrimination happens daily and has for a very long time. Its consequences are both personally and economically devastating.

Anyone of us who has been subjected to employment discrimination can be forgiven for thinking that his or her situation is hopeless and without recourse. The employer holds all the power, right? Not exactly. There are laws and there are people and organizations that can help you in your efforts to get a remedy. I won’t pretend that it’s easy.

The United States Constitution does not specifically prohibit employment discrimination and harassment by the government, but rather limits federal and state governments’ ability to discriminate under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which govern due process and equal protection of our “life, liberty and property.” The Constitution also does not prevent employment discrimination in the private sector, yet the federal government’s authority to prohibit discrimination in private companies, including the Civil Rights Act, stems from its authority to regulate commerce between States.

The early history of employment discrimination law is one of the presidential executive orders. As far back as 1941, engaging in employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by government contractors was prohibited by Executive Order 8802, signed that year by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This presidential action, the first ever taken by the executive branch, was not without motive. It was done to ensure that there were no strikes or demonstrations disrupting the manufacture of military supplies as we prepared for World War II. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which created a commission, headed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, to act as the enforcement authority, at least in the sense that there was a place to go to complain, and those complaints could be investigated.

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that discrimination by the private sector in public accommodations, government services and education was prohibited. Specifically, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin, and it applies to private employers, labor unions, and employment agencies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created by Title VII as the chief enforcement agency, and under a 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Commission was given litigation authority, meaning that it has the option to sue employers, unions, and employment agencies. It is still your “go to” authority when seeking a remedy.

So when you hear someone in or out of government complaining about the Civil Rights Act, which has been amended several times and also the subject of many court cases, just know that it covers a whole host of protections against discrimination for everyone, male and female, and provides a process by which to seek a remedy. It is important in these days when we’re all subject to the whims of Donald Trump and some legislators, that we resist attempts to weaken this law. There have been many employment laws, apart from the Civil Rights Act, enacted in the decades since 1964 that affect age discrimination, employment status while pregnant, pay equity and people with disabilities. They are there for you.

This essay was written by Roxann Wedegartner, a longtime town planning board member in Greenfield, and a freelance writer and novelist.


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