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Overview of Employment and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Almost every employee is subject to protections under a number of federal employment and anti-discrimination laws. Federal employment laws apply to workers with disabilities and those caring for sick family members. Anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination in employment for protected classes.

State employment and discrimination laws may also apply but vary greatly in terms of protections provided to employees. For instance, many states include LGBTQ employees on the list of protected individuals.

The following is a primer on important federal employment and anti-discrimination laws. Given the wide variation in state employment and anti-discrimination laws, it is important that you also understand the employment laws in your state.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects those individuals who have a long-term physical or mental impairment that substantially limits life activity. Qualifying disabilities are decided on a case by case basis. A "disability" under the ADA may include confinement to a wheelchair, vision or hearing problems, reliance on a cane, mental illness, and neuromuscular disorders.

Under the ADA, an employer must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals protected under the act, and must not:

  • Make employment decisions based on generalizations about the disability
  • Adopt detrimentally different pay scales, benefit programs, or promotion opportunities for a protected individual or group
  • Negotiate and enter into contracts with other companies that would have the effect of discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of disability
  • Discriminate against any employee with regard to terms of employment because a family member or friend is protected under the ADA
  • Discriminate against protected individuals or groups through the use of pre-employment medical examinations, pre-employment inquiries about physical abilities, job descriptions and qualifications, absenteeism, and work safety

Note: The ADA applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The ADEA is designed to protect individuals over the age of forty from discrimination based upon their age. The Act protects individuals from discriminatory treatment, based on their age, in hiring, promotion, and firing decisions.

The ADEA does not prohibit an employer from following a bona fide seniority system that may have the unintended effect of favoring certain employees, and the law does allow age to play a factor in the rare circumstances where it is a bona fide occupational qualification. For example, firefighters in most states are limited to a certain age range.

Note: The ADEA applies only to employers with 20 or more employees.

Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA)

COBRA protects employees who have ended their employment (whether fired, resigned, or laid off) from losing coverage under a group health plan. The law requires employers to offer such employees the right to a continuation of coverage. However, the employer generally does not pay the former employee's insurance premium and it can be too costly for the former worker to afford.

Note: COBRA applies only to employers with 20 or more employees.

Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act requires that employers pay male and female employees the same wage for performing the same job. In short, the Act mandates "equal pay for equal work." It does not address pay equities with respect to other characteristics, such as race or religion, but applies only to gender.

Note: Employers who are required to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are also required to comply with the Equal Pay Act.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA)

ERISA is a federal law that contains detailed requirements for certain employers who offer their employees a welfare benefit plan or retirement plan. An example of a welfare benefit plan is one providing health insurance to employees. ERISA contains numerous amendments, like the Health Insurance Probability, Accountability Act, and the Newborns' and Mothers' Health Protection Act.

Note: For liability purposes, employers may have a rather inactive involvement in ERISA compliance; particularly where a "plan administrator" is utilized to ensure that reporting, disclosure, and payment obligations are complied with.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Under the FMLA, employers must provide their employees with family leave. The Act allows for employees to take the equivalent of twelve weeks of unpaid leave each year due to the birth or adoption of a child, to attend to the "serious health condition" of an immediate family member, or to attend to their own "serious health condition." FMLA also covers employees who need to care for a spouse, child, or parent due to a serious health condition.

Under the FMLA, a "serious health condition" is defined as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition which involves an overnight stay in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility, including any period of incapacity or any subsequent treatment in connection with that care, which also includes:

  • A period of incapacity of more than three consecutive days
  • Any period of incapacity due to pregnancy or prenatal care, including a spouse taking leave for pregnancy or adoption
  • Any period of incapacity or treatment due to a chronic serious health condition
  • A period of incapacity that is permanent or long-term due to a condition for which treatment may be ineffective
  • Any period of absence to receive multiple treatments from a health care provider, including treatment for conditions that are not presently incapacitating, but would become so if left untreated

The FMLA also requires that, after the twelve weeks of unpaid leave, the employee be reinstated to the same job (or an equivalent job if the original position is no longer available).

Note: The FMLA applies only to employers with 50 or more employees.

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to comply with minimum-wage requirements. In addition, the FLSA contains provisions on overtime pay and child labor. Not every employer is required to comply with the FLSA. Only employers who are engaged in interstate or foreign commerce and whose gross yearly sales total or exceed $500,000 are required to comply with the Act.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or gender in all aspects of employment — from recruitment through termination.

In order to comply with Title VII, an employer must make employment decisions on the basis of business necessity, rather than based upon a particular individual's membership in a protected class. However, there is a very limited exception to complying with Title VII when there is a bona fide occupational qualification that requires an employee to possess a certain characteristic.

Note: Title VII applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.

Get Professional Legal Help Filing Your EEOC Claim

Everyone deserves an equal opportunity at finding, keeping, and excelling at a job, regardless of their gender, race, religious beliefs, or other characteristics that are irrelevant to the actual job. If you believe you were treated unfairly due to a protected characteristic, you may have a valid discrimination claim. Get in touch with a local employment law attorney today.

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