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Employment Discrimination: Overview

Employment discrimination is mistreating job applicants or employees based on protected traits. Laws protect people's characteristics, such as race, gender, or religion. Discrimination includes refusing to hire, disciplining, firing, or harassing someone based on these traits. If they complain and you retaliate against them, that is illegal, too. The federal government and states each have their own laws about employment discrimination, discriminatory practices, and other illegal employment practices. The goal is to stop employers from discriminating, and there are state and federal agencies to support you.

The following is an introduction to employment discrimination law.

What Is a Protected Class?

A group of people who share a trait protected by law are a protected class. For example, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws to protect you from discrimination at work because of your:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation)
  • National origin
  • Age (40 or older)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

State law may give extra protection for traits such as:

  • Marital status (married or unmarried)
  • Family status (having children)
  • Veteran status

For example, California state law's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects marital and military or veteran status even though federal law does not.

What Actions Are Illegal?

If an employer's actions against you are because you are in a protected class, their actions are illegal. Some examples of actions include:

  • Refusing to hire
  • Disciplining
  • Firing
  • Denying training
  • Demoting or failing to promote
  • Retaliating (revenge)
  • Paying less than other employees for the same work
  • Harassing
  • Creating a hostile work environment

Disparate Impact

It is also illegal for an employer to have a rule or practice with a "disparate impact" on a protected class. For example, if an employer's hiring criteria tend to screen out women, there would be a "disparate impact" on women. Or if an employer requires a test for promotion, but a particular group tends to score poorly. These policies or practices are illegal, like rules where only men or women can have specific jobs.

A "disparate impact" policy or practice can only happen from a "bona fide occupational qualification." For example, a strength test to be a firefighter may screen out women because the employee must carry victims down tall ladders.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

In 1964, the United States passed a law to make some types of discrimination illegal: The Civil Rights Act. Title VII discusses employment discrimination. "Employment" includes employers choosing who to hire and the treatment you get while working. Below are some examples of illegal discrimination during employment.

Sex Discrimination

Discrimination based on sex includes pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Sex does not only mean men or women. It also includes pregnancy, abortion, and other medical conditions related to pregnancy.

It is also illegal to discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation (e.g., being gay) or gender identity (e.g., transgender). Sexual orientation and gender identity are part of sex discrimination because someone treats you differently based on your sex. For example, a woman gets fired for marrying a woman, but her male coworker does not get fired for marrying a woman. A man who uses she/her pronouns should get equal treatment to a woman who uses she/her pronouns.

Reverse Discrimination

Title VII doesn't only make it illegal to discriminate against women and minority members. Title VII also makes it illegal to discriminate against you for being a man or white while working or applying for a job. This is popularly known as "reverse discrimination" and may happen because of an unfairly applied affirmative action program.

Equal Pay Discrimination

Paying someone less because of the traits listed above is illegal under Title VII. Another law, the Equal Pay Act, requires employers to pay all genders who perform "equal work." A difference in pay is only allowed when based on seniority, merit, or some other work-related reason. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 also outlawed pay discrimination.

Age Discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a federal law that makes it illegal to discriminate against you for being over 40 years old. An example of discrimination under the ADEA is if your company fires you or forces you to retire and then replaces you with a younger employee.

The ADEA is more limited than Title VII. The ADEA only applies to employers that have 20 or more employees. Also, the ADEA does not make it illegal for an employer to take actions that have a "disparate impact" on older employees. Instead, the ADEA only bars deliberate discrimination against older workers. It may be possible for you to use both Title VII and ADEA in your complaint.

Disability Discrimination

Two federal laws are the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA applies to private employers with more than 15 employees. The Rehabilitation Act applies to all government employers and federal contractors. Both laws make it illegal to discriminate against you for your disability.

For these laws to protect you, you must show that you have a disability, have a history of disability, or that your employer considers you disabled.

If you show you have a disability, your employer can't discriminate against you. Your employer must also provide "reasonable accommodation" for the disability. Examples of reasonable accommodation include a modified work schedule or duties, unpaid time off, or special devices to help you perform your job. The U.S. Department of Labor explains how to request a reasonable accommodation from your employer.

National Origin Discrimination

Discrimination based on national origin means treating you differently because of the country you are from, your accent, or because your employer thinks you are a particular ethnicity (even if you are not).

The EEOC has more details about national origin discrimination.

National Origin discrimination includes rules or practices that have a disparate impact on people of a specific origin. This is illegal unless the rule or practice is work-related. For example, an "English-only rule" that requires you to speak only English on the job is only allowed if it is for safety or to operate the business.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) makes it illegal to discriminate against you because of your citizenship or immigration status. It is also unlawful to retaliate or take revenge against someone for reporting discrimination.

Religious Discrimination

It is illegal to discriminate against you during hiring or at work because of your religious beliefs. Harassment and retaliation (revenge for reporting discrimination) are also illegal.

Discrimination based on religion means unfair treatment based on:

  • Affiliation (being part of a religious group) — for example, practicing Buddhism
  • Characteristics (looks based on religion) — for example, if you wear a yarmulke because you are Jewish or wear a hijab (headscarf) because you are Muslim
  • Perception (employer assumes your religion) — for example, a supervisor fires a Sikh for wearing a turban because the supervisor thought he was Muslim
  • Association — for example, discrimination against you because your husband is Catholic or because you attend a particular church
  • No religion — for example, if you are not part of a church or religious group

Employers must reasonably accommodate religious practices unless the accommodation would create an "undue hardship" (great difficulty) for the employer.

How Do I Report Employment Discrimination?

If you suffered employment discrimination at work or when applying, you must report what happened to the government. For most employment discrimination lawsuits, you must go through the EEOC process before filing a lawsuit in court. You must also report within certain time limits.

How Do I Report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

There are three ways you can report to the EEOC.

  • Report Online — Set up an account and answer the questions online. Someone from the EEOC will interview you.
  • In Person at an EEO Office — Bring any information or papers about your case. Also, write down a list of people who know what happened and how to contact them. You can also bring someone to help you. For example, you can get a relative or friend to help translate or bring your lawyer. You can find an EEOC Office close to you on the EEOC website. You do not need an appointment, but the EEOC recommends online appointments.
  • By Mail — If you have 60 days or less remaining on your time limit, call (800) 669-4000 for particular directions to ensure you report on time. In your letter to the EEOC, you must include information about you, your company, and the situation. See the website for a list of details you need to include. Remember to sign your letter!
  • Telephone — The EEOC can't take a report over the phone. If you have questions about the complaint process or how to file a report, call 800-669-4000 to discuss your situation.

Time Limits

Your legal rights might expire unless you report the discrimination in time. The time to report to the EEOC is 180 days after the discrimination. You should decide what you want to do as soon as possible. Talk to a lawyer as quickly as possible if you think your boss discriminated against you or you have passed the time limit.

Remember to check the time limits and talk to an attorney if you're unsure about the reporting and lawsuit process.

State and Local Laws

Most states, counties, and cities also have employment discrimination laws. Many of these laws protect on top of the federal regulations. For example, the state may have a law that protects certain groups not covered by federal laws. State and local laws may also apply to smaller employers who don't qualify under the federal statutes. It may be possible to combine federal, state, and local laws.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your Discrimination Claim

If you think your boss discriminated against you while hiring or at work, you should meet with a lawyer soon to ensure you don't lose your legal rights. Did someone refuse to hire you on the basis of race? Does your office have a shady employment policy? Have you gotten lesser job assignments based on your protected status? Your company's employment decisions and conditions of employment have consequences. Nondiscrimination should be the rule. There are many civil rights laws anti-discrimination laws that protect your employee rights. Don't delay. Contact an employment law attorney in your area today.

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Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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