Below is an overview with commentary of significant civil rights legislation on both the state and federal levels. As can be seen, Massachusetts has been a leader in enacting equal opportunity laws designed to deter sexual harassment and eradicate workplace discrimination on the basis of age; race, color, and national origin; religious creed; handicap; as well as sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.Employment Discrimination Statutes: Chronological Order
Employment Discrimination Statutes: Commentary
In 1945, the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act became the first law in the nation to require equal pay for men and women for comparable work. Although a landmark piece of legislation, the statute was criticized as an ineffective tool for combating the pay gap between genders. According to wage disparity research by the American Association of University Women , women earn 79% of the compensation of their male counterparts nationwide and 80% to 84% in Massachusetts. In 2016, the Massachusetts House and State Senate both unanimously passed a new version of the Equal Pay Act, which re-defines the “comparable work” standard. On August 1, 2018, Governor Baker signed this bill into law, which will become effective on January 1, 2016. The revised version of the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act is expected to remedy the restrictive interpretation of “comparable work” created under the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion in Jancey v. School Committee of Everett.
Nearly two decades later, in 1963, Congress passed the federal Equal Pay Act . While both laws are strict liability statutes, meaning that an employee need not prove discriminatory intent, several differences exist. Under the federal version, recovery for equal pay violations is limited to two years, or three years where the violation is willful. In contrast, the state version carries a one year statute of limitations. In addition, the federal Equal Pay Act provides the employer with four affirmative defenses to justify the pay disparity in question whereas the Massachusetts version carves out seniority as the sole exception.
In 1946, the Massachusetts Legislature created the Fair Employment Practices Act which initially prohibited discrimination in the workplace based on ancestry, race, color, national origin, or religious creed. On the federal level, in 1964, Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act , which also prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of ancestry, race, color, national origin, religion, as well as gender. One year later, in 1965, the Massachusetts Legislature amended the Commonwealth’s anti-discrimination statute to include, like Title VII, gender as a protected class.
Additional amendments to the Fair Employment Practices Act followed: in 1975, age discrimination in the workplace became unlawful; in 1984, disability discrimination was added as a protected class; and in 1989, Massachusetts became the second state in the country to ban sexual orientation discrimination in both the public and private sectors. In addition, consistent with its broad remedial purpose, the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts Electric Co. v. MCAD recognized that differential treatment based on pregnancy constitutes gender discrimination under the Act.
Likewise, Congress amended Title VII and enacted other pieces of legislation to provide similar protections in the employment context. In 1967, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to prohibit age discrimination in the workplace eight years before Massachusetts offered the same protection; in 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII to include pregnancy as a form of unlawful gender discrimination; and in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted to protect disabled employees six years after Massachusetts took that step. To strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act, in 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act which broadened the definition of disability and, among other changes, excluded the use of mitigating measures when evaluating whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
Employee threshold and other requirements exist under Title VII, the ADA, ADEA and the Fair Employment Practices Act. Where these statutes do not apply, individuals may seek redress under other laws. The Supreme Judicial Court in Thurdin v. SEI Boston, for example, held that while FEPA does not apply to employers with less than six employees, an employee who is subjected to pregnancy discrimination may bring a claim under the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act . Similarly, in Lowery v. Klemm, the SJC stated that although FEPA only protects employees, volunteers who are exposed to sexual harassment may bring a claim under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act .
Many judicial interpretations have shaped our civil rights statutes. In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, for example, the Supreme Court scrutinized the ability to recover damages for gender discrimination under Title VII. There, the plaintiff brought a gender discrimination claim under Title VII upon discovering, after nineteen years of employment, that she had been paid significantly less than her male counterparts. At trial, Ms. Ledbetter presented evidence that she received several poor evaluations because of her sex, which she later discovered negatively affected her pay.
A jury agreed that she was paid less because of her gender and awarded more than $3 million in damages, which the trial judge slashed to approximately $360,000 due to the statutory caps under the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the entire award. In doing so, the Court found her Title VII claim untimely, stating that “current effects alone cannot breathe life into prior, uncharged discrimination” and that each paycheck did not re-start the statute of limitations clock.
In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to address the inequity that surfaced from the Ledbetter ruling, commenting that the decision “ignores the reality of wage discrimination and is at odds with the robust application of the civil rights laws that Congress intended.” Under the LLFPA, a plaintiff who proves a discriminatory pay structure can recover up to two years of back pay. Significantly, the statute of limitations begins to run not only when a discriminatory practice is adopted, but also when an employee becomes subject to such a decision.
Beyond directly combating discrimination, other statutes protect workers in different ways. Under federal law, for example, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act requires employers to provide terminated employees who are at least 40 years old with a minimum period of time to review a severance offer, an opportunity to revoke an acceptance, and provide certain information when the discharge is part of a larger termination program. The EEOC’s publication “ Understanding Waivers of Discrimination Claims in Employee Severance Agreements ” provides more information on the OWBPA.
Finally, several statutes guarantee employees leaves of absence under particular circumstances. Under the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act , employees are entitled to eight weeks of unpaid maternity or paternity leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Pursuant to the Massachusetts Small Necessities Leave Act , employees also receive 24 unpaid hours of leave each year to participate in certain school-related activities and to attend medical appointments with a child or elderly relative. And in 2015, the Commonwealth’s Legislature passed the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law , which gives employees 40 hours of paid sick time per year.
Similarly, under federal law, the Family & Medical Leave Act provides employees with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for maternity or paternity leave; to recover from a serious health condition; or to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition. In 2008, the National Defense Authorization Act amended the FMLA to allow an employee 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member who is injured while on military active duty and 12 weeks of unpaid leave where the family member is called for active duty.