Equal employment opportunity (“EEO”) laws are a set of federal laws and regulations that prohibit workplace discrimination against current and potential employees. Employers are prohibited from discriminating against an individual for a number of reasons, including their age, sex, race, nationality, religion, disability and pregnancy status.
Employers are also prohibited from retaliating against an individual for complaining about discrimination, filing a charge of discrimination and/or assisting with a discrimination investigation.
Discrimination can occur in many ways, including refusal to hire, termination or harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) enforces these laws at the federal level. There are also corresponding state laws and agencies that prohibit discrimination and allow for investigation and enforcement of the laws at the state level.
The following are examples of a few specific federal EEO laws that protect individuals from discrimination in the workplace:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin and/or sex.
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Prohibits discrimination against someone for being pregnant, delivering a child, or having a medical condition relating to pregnancy or childbirth.
- Equal Pay Act: Requires employers to pay workers equally for equal work that is done in the same company or establishment, regardless of their gender.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967: Prohibits discrimination against people over the age of 40 because of their age.
- Americans with Disabilities Act: Protects individuals with legally recognized disabilities from workplace discrimination, including harassment or failure to accommodate for a disability.
EEO laws, both at the state and federal level, are constantly changing with the times to address new discrimination issues. For example, some states now specifically have laws that apply to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.
Once an individual files a complaint of discrimination with the EEOC, the agency will conduct an investigation. If the EEOC determines that discrimination occurred, they will attempt settlement of the charge.
This could include money damages, reinstatement of the complainant’s job and sanctions against the employer. If the case cannot be settled or remedied the EEOC can sometimes file a lawsuit on the individual’s behalf. However, in most cases the agency will issue the individual a right to sue letter.
From start to finish, there are key, distinct stages of an EEO complaint. However, there are also steps that must be taken before hand.
Step 1, you have 180-day period after the discrimination occurred to file a charge. However, if the discrimination occurred in a state or jurisdiction that prohibits that same discrimination, then you have 300 days.
- For age discrimination complaints, you only get 300 days if there is a local law prohibiting age discrimination and a local agency that enforces the law.
Step 2, you can submit your complaint online, by mail, or go to a local EEOC office. If you go in-person, the staff there can best explain the process and help you determine if you have a claim. While they do not process and assess your claim right there, they can help you figure out what steps to take if the EEOC is not the right place to help.
- You may also discuss the situation over the phone, but you cannot file a complaint over the phone.
Step 3, after you file your complaint, you can check the status of your claim online. Within 10 days of filing the charge, a notice will be sent to your employer. Be prepared to agree to mediation. If the EEOC does not apply to your situation, or they cannot otherwise help, then the investigation will be closed and you’ll receive an explanation.
Step 4, if the mediation doesn’t work or you were not sent to mediation, then the employer will be asked to respond to the complaint. Once they do, you will receive a copy for your records. Afterwards, you must respond within 20 days from the date you receive your copy. From there, the EEOC will investigate the complaint.
- While length of the investigation varies from case to case, it can take around 10 months for them to investigate the claim. If you refused mediation, then reconsider it as it can typically resolve a situation in 3 months.
The EEOC has 180 days to resolve the complaint, but if they do not (or know that the complaint cannot be resolved) then you will get a Right to Sue letter. You need a Right to Sue letter if you file your claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
You do not need a Right to Sue letter if your complaint is filed under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or the Equal Pay Act. However, there are statute of limitations on those claims and you should be aware of them.
If you believe that you have been discriminated against in the employment setting, you should contact an employment lawyer in your area to help you file an EEOC charge (or charge at the state level) and potentially a civil lawsuit. A lawyer can help you build your case and attempt settlement with the employer. A lawyer can also advise you about the discrimination laws that are available both at the federal level and in your state.