In the summer of 1964, Lyndon Johnson was beginning to juggle the two policy priorities that would define his presidency. As the specter of war in Vietnam hung over Washington, Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The thought of young Americans of all colors fighting in Southeast Asia and coming home to Jim Crow workplaces helped break a Republican filibuster to move the legislation forward.
As the war raged, Congress passed protections for older workers, many of whom were World War II veterans, in 1967 with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. As wounded veterans returned from Vietnam in 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act. That law protects disabled federal government workers and employees of federal contractors, and served as the blueprint for the ADA.
The employment law legislative cycle has played out repeatedly for more than 40 years: Congress acts to protect service members’ rights when they are risking their lives in the field. Often these rights are then extended to all other workers as well.
The ADA was part of a post-Gulf War employment law flurry. Congress passed a revised Civil Rights Act in 1991, a year after enacting the ADA. The 1991 act gave employees broader rights to sue and receive monetary damages in discrimination suits against employers. The next year, Congress passed the FMLA, but President George Herbert Walker Bush vetoed it. When Bill Clinton assumed office in 1993, the bill was waiting on his desk. It was the first piece of legislation Clinton signed into law.
In 1994, Congress passed the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), giving National Guard members and reservists enhanced rights to return to their old jobs. The small number of activated reservists in the 1990s, however, allowed employment concerns to move to the shadows. Only in 2005 did the U.S. Labor Department actually issue USERRA regulations.
This year, Congress passed the first ever FMLA amendments allowing members of military families time off to attend to family matters or assist wounded family members.
Congress is hard-pressed to resist the political appeal of these laws. After all, politicians want to get elected.
But wartime spending often disrupts the peacetime economy. With the exception of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, most employment laws were passed during recessions. So employers have to adapt to a new set of rules with fewer resources than ever.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, Congress will no doubt look at revising other employment laws, possibly instituting paid , extending Civil Rights Act protections to gays or offering expanded religious accommodation. Savvy employers will stay informed and keep their personnel up-to-date on recent and upcoming changes.
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