Where do the presidents rank on employment law?

In other words, which presidents can we -- ahem -- blame?

George and Abe say, "Don't look at us."

Just kidding. In honor of President's Day, I thought it might be fun to review which presidents were responsible for the federal labor and employment laws we all know and love. These laws were enacted in the 20th and 21st centuries, starting with Franklin Roosevelt. (Well, except the Railway Labor Act, which was signed into law by Calvin Coolidge in 1926.) Instead of going in chronological order, I'll rank our presidents from least activist to most activist, employment-law-wise. Some of the rankings may surprise you.

Please note that my characterizations below apply only to the Presidents' degree of employment-law-related activism -- and don't necessarily reflect my opinion of their overall performance in office.

I got nuthin':

Harry Truman

Dwight Eisenhower

Gerald Ford (see update at the end of this post)

Jimmy Carter

One-hit wonders:

John F. Kennedy. He signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which prohibits pay discrimination based on sex. That was it, but of course there is no telling what he might have done if he been able to have a full term in office.

Richard Nixon. He signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law in 1970.


Ronald Reagan. President Reagan signed into law the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires employers to give employees 60 days' notice of a plant closing or "mass layoff."

George H.W. Bush Sr. (see update at the end of this post). The elder Bush is responsible for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990 and took effect in two stages, in 1992 and 1994. 

Donald Trump. President Trump signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. (Remember that?) The law provided FMLA or FMLA-like leave to employers who had to miss work for reasons related to COVID-19. It expired at the end of 2020, but it was a big help to employees during the worst period of the pandemic.

Employment law activists:

Bill Clinton.The Family and Medical Leave Act -- which recently had its 30th anniversary -- became law in 1993, during the first term of President Clinton. His administration was also responsible for the first set of regulations interpreting the FMLA (which have since been updated a few times). President Clinton also signed into law the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, better known as "USERRA," in 1994.

George W. Bush. You may be surprised to see Bush the Younger in the "Activist" category, but he signed into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act. (The GINA did not take effect until the first term of Barack Obama, and the ADAAA did not take effect until the very end of the Bush Administration.) The ADAAA was especially significant. Before, the courts had taken a narrow view of who had a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA and was therefore protected. But the Amendments Act dramatically broadened the definition of "disability," so that many more individuals now have protection and employers must consider reasonable accommodations in many more situations.

Barack Obama. Although President Obama cannot take credit for signing the GINA or the ADAAA into law, it was his administration that issued regulations interpreting these laws. In addition, he signed into law the Nursing Mothers Act, which amended the FLSA to require employers to provide unpaid break time and a private, clean space (not a bathroom!) for nursing moms to express milk. In addition, he signed into law the amendments to the FMLA that provided coverage for military "qualifying exigencies" and to allow employees to care for covered servicemembers. (That legislation passed Congress during the Bush Administration, but it became law under President Obama.) His Department of Labor also issued (in 2013) the version of the FMLA regulations that is currently in effect. His Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs expanded its interpretation of Executive Order 11246 (see LBJ, below) to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Joe Biden. For a while it looked like President Biden was going to be in the "I got nuthin'" category. Then, in one fell swoop, he became an Activist, having signed into law at the end of 2022 the omnibus spending legislation that included the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act -- which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and related conditions -- and an expansion of the Nursing Mothers Act. (Both of these new laws are discussed here.) The legislation also included provisions intended to make retirement saving easier for employees. Way to come from behind, Mr. President!

Winners and still champions:

Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was responsible for the National Labor Relations Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), two extremely big deals enacted as part of the New Deal. These laws marked the beginning of federal involvement in the private workplace. FUN FACT: The federal minimum wage under the original FLSA (which applied only to about one-fifth of the U.S. labor force) was a whopping 25 cents an hour. According to Thompson-Reuters, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would have been the equivalent of $120 an hour in 1938.

Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was responsible for signing into law Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, sex, national origin, religion, or color. He also issued Executive Order 11246, which prohibits discrimination by federal contractors and requires them to have affirmative action plans. And, as if that weren't enough, he signed into law in 1967 the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination based on age with individuals who are 40 years old or older.


Happy President's Day weekend, everybody! Have a great weekend.

And I apologize for the incomplete tags for this post. Our blog platform apparently decided to start the long weekend early.

UPDATE (2/18/23): Apparently it wasn't just the blog platform that took an early vacation. Some alert readers reminded me that Gerald Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act into law in 1974 and that George H.W. Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 into law after the Senate came one vote short of overriding his veto. So President Ford should be promoted to the "one-hit wonder" category, and the elder Bush should move into the "activist" category based on his less-than-enthusiastic signature. Thank you, readers!

Image credits: Mount Rushmore from Adobe Stock. From flickr, Creative Commons license: Richard Nixon by tonynetone, Barack Obama by OhioProgress, MLK-LBJ by Georgia Democrats. FDR in public domain.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
Continue Reading



Back to Page