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Federal Discrimination Laws in the Workplace: The Basics

Federal laws govern conditions of employment to protect U.S. workers from discrimination and harassment. These federal discrimination laws apply to aspects of employment, including:

  • Job listings
  • Interviews
  • Employment decisions
  • Interview processes
  • Job assignments
  • Terminations

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibit specific types of job discrimination in certain workplaces. The U.S. Department of Labor has two agencies that deal with EEO monitoring and enforcement.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces these employment laws by investigating employee complaints of discriminatory practices. The EEOC is the federal agency enforcing the following laws:

  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)
  • Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 amended several sections in Title VII

The EEOC does not enforce all federal workplace laws. For example, the EEOC does not enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor administers and enforces the FLSA concerning private employment, state and local government employment, and certain federal government agency employees.

Certain employment-related activities are banned in the federal workforce because they violate the merit system through some form of employment discrimination. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel can investigate and prosecute violations.

Concerning discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to do the following regardless of whether a person is pro-union:

  • Discharge
  • Layoff
  • Discipline employees
  • Refuse to hire job applicants discharge

Under the NLRA, it is an unfair labor practice for an employer to discriminate due to membership in any labor organization. The following provides a general overview of federal discrimination laws, organized by type, with links to detailed resources.

FindLaw's extensive Employment Discrimination section, including Filing Discrimination Charges with the EEOC, provides additional information.

Racial Discrimination

The federal anti-discrimination law entitled Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also known as Title VII, prohibits qualifying employers from discriminating on the basis of race, skin color, or characteristics associated with a given race.

Title VII prohibits discrimination with regard to any term, condition, or privilege of employment. This law also covers harassment of employees by managers or other employees based on their race or skin color.

Employment practices that are applied equally to everyone can still be discriminatory if they harm a given racial group.

For more information, see the following FindLaw resources:

Sex Discrimination

Similarly, Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including:

  • Sex-based wage discrimination
  • Gender discrimination
  • Gender identity discrimination
  • Sexual orientation discrimination

This also covers unfair treatment based on an individual's association with a gender-based organization. Examples of gender discrimination may include:

  • A refusal to hire women
  • Lack of advancement opportunities based on sex or sexual orientation
  • Firing someone because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer

For more in-depth information, read:

Age Discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers ages 40 and up from unfair treatment. For instance, employers generally may not pass up an older, more qualified employee for a promotion in favor of a younger, less qualified one.

For more information, check out FindLaw's resources on:

Religious Discrimination

Discrimination against employees based on their religious beliefs is also prohibited in many cases by Title VII. These protections extend to individuals who do not belong to an organized religious group but still have strong moral or ethical beliefs.

As with other types of discrimination, this also protects employees treated differently for merely associating with someone from a religious group.

For more information, visit:

Pregnancy Discrimination

Another federal law known as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits discriminatory treatment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or other conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. For instance, a woman may not be passed up for a promotion because of her pregnancy if she is the most qualified. Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protect an employee's rights to reasonable accommodations or leave associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

For more detailed, in-depth information, please see:

Disability Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination against and protects the opportunities of individuals with disabilities or those perceived to have an impairment.

The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers who have a disability. These reasonable accommodations are required for qualified individuals when the accommodations do not cause an undue hardship.

The reasonable accommodations should not create an unreasonable burden on the company or other employees. Most employers can implement accommodations for a low cost or no cost. For example, a deaf applicant may need a sign language interpreter during a job interview.

For more detailed, in-depth information, please see:

Equal Pay & Wage Discrimination

The Equal Pay Act prohibits employment discrimination based on gender, requiring that men and women in the same workplace be paid equally for equal work. The Equal Pay Act requires employers to give male and female employees equal pay for doing the same work in similar working conditions.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act increased women's time to file claims. Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA also require equal pay regardless of race, religion, or other protected characteristics.

For more information:

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment comes in a variety of forms. It includes:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Offensive sexual comments
  • Non-sexual but offensive remarks about someone's gender

Title VII prohibits sexual harassment, a form of gender discrimination. Title VII also bans quid pro quo harassment, which translates to "something for something," which involves a promise of employment-related benefits in exchange for acceptance of the harasser's advances or conduct.

For more information:

National Origin Discrimination

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on one's country or region of origin, ethnicity, or other characteristics associated with a given nationality. This includes the mere appearance of having a particular ethnic background. Additionally, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) makes it illegal to discriminate based on one's citizenship or immigration status.

For more information:

Genetic Information Discrimination

Genetic testing is a newer area of the law and triggers protections under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). GINA prohibits the use of genetic information when making any employment-related decisions. For instance, a company may not fire someone because a blood test reveals a strong likelihood that they will develop terminal cancer. In addition to information related to genetic tests, GINA also applies to family medical history and whether an employee or a job applicant has requested genetic testing.

See Genetic Information Discrimination for more details.

A Lawyer Can Explain Your Legal Options On Federal Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination in the workplace can come in many forms — race, gender, and maternal status — to name a few. In some instances, many employers must comply with workplace discrimination laws, including an employment agency. If federal law does not apply to your situation, state laws or local laws may cover the situation.

There are laws in place to help citizens should they be the victim of job discrimination. Contact a local employment discrimination lawyer today if you want to know more.

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