Employment Law, 40 years ago

When Nolo was founded in 1971, employment law was still in its infancy – or, as the Carpenters sang a few months earlier, it had “only just begun.” Although courts and legislatures had recognized the rights of union members for decades, the idea of rights for individual employees came later. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, passed only seven years earlier in 1964, outlawed discrimination in the workplace for the first time. Before that landmark law, it was still perfectly legal for employers to hang signs saying “Whites only need apply,” for example (and many did).

Even after Title VII prohibited workplace discrimination, many employers continued the practice without admitting it. Instead of discriminating openly, they imposed job requirements that screened out certain applicants. In 1971, the Supreme Court decided for the first time that these tactics were also illegal, in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which created the legal theory of disparate impact discrimination. Duke Power used to refuse to hire African American applicants for its higher paying jobs. After Title VII passed, the company required applicants for those jobs to have a high school diploma or receive a satisfactory score on two IQ tests. The Court found that these requirements were illegal because they had the effect of continuing the company’s race discrimination.

Although Title VII outlawed some forms of discrimination, many other job practices that are illegal today were perfectly legal in 1971. Here are a few:

  • Sexual harassment. The first cases challenging sexual harassment as a form of illegal sex discrimination weren’t brought until the later 1970s, and the Supreme Court didn’t recognize sexual harassment until 1986. Propositions by the boss, groping, and lewd comments were de facto job requirements for many women in 1971. We’ve come a long way, baby.
  • Pregnancy discrimination. Many employers fired women who became pregnant, required them to stop working when they reached a certain point in their pregnancy (or were “showing”), and refused to hire pregnant women. It wasn’t until 1978 that Congress officially declared pregnancy discrimination a form of sex discrimination.
  • Disability discrimination. The Americans with Disabilities Act wasn’t passed until 1990. Until that time, employers could fire or refuse to hire employees with disabilities, segregate them into low-paying positions or jobs with no customer contact, and refuse to make workplaces accessible to employees with disabilities.

1971 was a banner year for the workplace in another way: It was the year the microprocessor was invented. This innovation would eventually change the way all of us work forever, with a little help from a gadget that debuted in 1973, the cell phone. (The 1973 version was actually less of a gadget than a piece of luggage: It weighed two and a half pounds, had a battery life of 20 minutes, and was called “The Boot” because it was ten inches long.) In 1971, Tony Orlando asked his girl to “Knock Three Times” on the ceiling if she wanted him; in a couple of years, she could just hit him back on his cell.