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Employment and Anti-Discrimination Laws: An Introduction

Almost every employer has certain obligations to its employees under federal employment and anti-discrimination laws, while state laws often provide additional protections for workers. Following is an employer-friendly primer on important federal employment and anti-discrimination laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you are an employee, see the Employment Discrimination section within FindLaw's Employment Law center.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA protects those individuals who have a long-term physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a life activity. A "disability" under the ADA can include confinement to a wheelchair, vision and hearing problems, reliance on a cane or "walker," certain mental illnesses, and disorders of the muscular system.

Under the ADA, an employer (with more than 15 employees) must provide reasonable accommodations for disabled individuals protected under the act, and may 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; or
  • 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.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The ADEA is designed to protect individuals over the age of forty from discrimination based upon 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 affect of favoring certain employees, and the Act does allow age to play a factor in the rare circumstances where it is a bona fide occupational qualification. The ADEA applies 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 Act requires employers (with at least 20 employees) to offer such employees the right to a continuation of coverage

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.

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 12 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."

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.

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). FMLA applies to employers with at least 50 employees. 

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

The FLSA 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, just employers who are engaged in interstate or foreign commerce and whose gross yearly sales total or exceed $500,000. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits employers (with 15 or more employees) 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 rarely (successfully) used exception to complying with Title VII, when there is a bona fide occupational qualification that requires an employee to possess a certain characteristic.

If you have questions about your obligations as an employer under the laws in your state, or wish to discuss your rights under the federal laws described below, talk with an employment law attorney in your area.

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