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Federal Employment Discrimination Laws To Know

Federal employment discrimination law protects people from unlawful discrimination at work. Many states have their own employment discrimination laws, which may offer more protection than federal laws.

Employment discrimination happens when a company, business owner, or their representative makes an adverse employment decision based on a protected characteristic. Anyone who has experienced employment discrimination can pursue relief under federal discrimination laws.

Small business owners without human resources departments should learn about these laws to protect themselves and their businesses.

This FindLaw article gives a brief overview of federal employment discrimination laws.

Overview of Federal Labor Discrimination Laws

Many federal laws, including labor laws, cover different areas of employment. For example, we have a federal minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which often differs from a state or city minimum wage.

We also have the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that gives eligible employees the right to take unpaid leave (up to 12 weeks) without risking their jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) administers these laws. The Department of Labor also administers laws related to the following:

Employment Discrimination

Several federal laws address different types of employment discrimination.

Although this list is not exhaustive, these are the most commonly litigated areas of employment discrimination law:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the primary federal agency that enforces employment discrimination laws.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII bans employers from discriminating against employees and applicants based on a protected characteristic, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Gender/sexual orientation
  • National origin

Sexual harassment is one example of a Title VII violation because it is harassment based on gender or sexual orientation.

Finally, Title VII protects against harassment and retaliation based on the above protected categories. For example, consider a person who reports sexual harassment to their company's HR professional and gets fired shortly after that. They may have a case for sexual harassment and unlawful retaliation.

Title VII only applies to the following employers:

  • Private employers with more than 15 employees
  • Federal government employers
  • State government employers and their political subdivisions
  • Labor organizations
  • Employment agencies

The Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act prohibits discrimination based on sex in paying equal wages for equal work. Equal work means equal:

  • Skill
  • Effort
  • Responsibility under similar working conditions

The general rule is that if men and women perform the same jobs, their employer should pay them the same amount.

The exceptions to this general rule happen when a difference in pay results from either a seniority or merit system. Or a system that measures earnings by quantity or production quality or a differential based on any factor other than sex.

Unlike other acts, the Equal Pay Act applies to practically every employer, including private employers, regardless of how many employees they have.

Age Discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects people 40 or older from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA also bans harassment and retaliation based on a protected employee's age.

But, the ADEA does allow employers to favor older workers based on age, even when doing so adversely affects an employee who is 40 or older.

The ADEA applies to the following employers:

  • Private employers with more than 20 employees
  • Federal government
  • State government employers and their political subdivisions if they have more than 20 employees
  • Labor organizations
  • Employment agencies

Disability Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans employment discrimination against qualified people with disabilities. The ADA also forbids employment discrimination against people who associate with those with disabilities. For example, this means that you cannot refuse to hire someone because their child has a disability.

Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation is a change made — by an employer— to meet the needs of a person with a disability that does not lead to undue hardship for the employer or jeopardize safety.

For example, a reasonable accommodation might be flexible scheduling for a mentally ill employee to allow for therapy appointments. Or it might be reserved parking for an employee with a wheelchair.

Tips for Complying With the ADA

Identifying discrimination under the ADA is often challenging, but here are a few tips to help you follow the ADA:

  • Ask the same questions of all job applicants. Don't single out those with disabilities. If you only ask a disabled person whether they can lift something, that likely violates the ADA.
  • Inquiring about accommodations. You cannot ask job applicants with disabilities about accommodations unless the disability is obvious. So, you can ask about accommodations if the applicant came to the interview in a wheelchair or if they disclosed a disability.
  • Employers can hire the most qualified applicant. The ADA does not force an employer to give preferential consideration to a disabled applicant over other qualified applicants. An employer is free to select the most qualified applicant available.

Covered Employers (ADA)

The ADA applies to the following employers:

  • Private employers, if they have more than 15 employees
  • Federal government employers, if they have more than 15 employees
  • State government employers and their political subdivisions if they have more than 15 employees
  • Labor organizations, if they have more than 15 employees
  • Employment agencies if they have more than 15 employees

Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act

The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 bans employment and health insurance discrimination based on genetic information. Genetic information can reveal a person's current or future medical condition.

For example, a person with the marker for the Lynch gene has a predisposition for cancers, including colon and colorectal cancer. Under GINA, group health plans can't discriminate against a person with genetic markers for any disease. This includes denying coverage to a healthy person with a genetic predisposition to health conditions or charging higher premiums for coverage.

Employers can't make employment decisions based on genetic information. This includes the following:

  • Hiring
  • Termination
  • Promotion

Get Legal Help

Small business owners must follow federal employment laws. An experienced employment law attorney can help you understand these laws and draft an employee handbook to help with compliance. Speak to a qualified local employment law attorney right away.

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