The Ultimate Guide to Employment Discrimination Law

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 What Is Employment Discrimination Law?

Employment discrimination law refers to a body of laws and regulations designed to prevent employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on certain protected attributes.

These attributes may include:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion;
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity);
  • National origin;
  • Age (40 or older);
  • Disability;
  • Genetic information.

Sources of Employment Discrimination Law

Employment discrimination law in the United States is largely drawn from federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Equal Pay Act (EPA). Each of these laws prohibits discrimination in various aspects of employment and provides protections for different classes of individuals.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII is a fundamental piece of legislation in U.S. employment law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments.

Title VII also applies to private and public colleges and universities, employment agencies, and labor organizations.
Under Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate in any aspect of employment.

This includes:

  • Hiring and firing;
  • Compensation, assignment, or classification of employees;
  • Transfer, promotion, layoff, or recall;
  • Job advertisements;
  • Recruitment;
  • Testing;
  • Use of company facilities;
  • Training and apprenticeship programs;
  • Fringe benefits;
  • Pay, retirement plans, and disability leave; or
  • Other terms and conditions of employment.

Discriminatory practices under Title VII also include:

  • Harassment on the basis of any protected characteristic;
  • Retaliation against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination;
  • Participating in an investigation;
  • Opposing discriminatory practices.

Title VII also encompasses sexual harassment – this includes practices ranging from direct requests for sexual favors to workplace conditions that create a hostile environment for persons of either gender, including same-sex harassment. The act also covers pregnancy discrimination, meaning it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)

The EPA is a significant federal employment law that prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal. It is job content, not job titles, that determines whether jobs are substantially equal.

The EPA provides that employers must give equal pay to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially the same skill, effort, and responsibility and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment. Each of these factors is summarized as follows:

  • Skill: Measured by factors such as the experience, ability, education, and training required to perform the job. The issue is what skills are required for the job, not what skills the individual employees may have.
  • Effort: The amount of physical or mental exertion needed to perform the job.
  • Responsibility: The degree of accountability required in performing the job.
  • Working Conditions: This encompasses two factors: physical surroundings like temperature, fumes, ventilation, and hazards.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including:

  • Employment;
  • Transportation;
  • Public accommodations;
  • Communications; and
  • Access to state and local government programs and services.

In the employment context, Title I of the ADA prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in:

  • Job application procedures;
  • Hiring;
  • Firing;
  • Advancement;
  • Compensation;
  • Job training;
  • Other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

The ADA also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees or applicants with disabilities unless doing so would cause significant hardship for the employer.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include but are not limited to:

  • Caring for oneself;
  • Performing manual tasks;
  • Seeing;
  • Hearing;
  • Eating;
  • Sleeping;
  • Walking;
  • Standing;
  • Lifting;
  • Bending;
  • Speaking;
  • Breathing;
  • Learning;
  • Reading;
  • Concentrating;
  • Thinking;
  • Communicating; and
  • Working.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA)

The ADEA protects certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions, or privileges of employment. The EEOC enforces the ADEA and applies to employers with 20 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments, private employers, and labor organizations.

The ADEA also makes it unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on age or for filing an age discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under the ADEA.

Similar to the ADA, the ADEA also includes a reasonable accommodations provision. However, this is only where an age-qualified worker also has a disability as defined under the ADA, and reasonable accommodation is required due to that disability. The ADEA does not require reasonable accommodation for age alone.

Who Enforces Employment Discrimination Laws?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing these federal laws relating to discrimination. The EEOC investigates discrimination complaints, mediates disputes, educates employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities, and may even file lawsuits against employers in severe cases of discrimination.

Who Is Protected by Employment Discrimination Laws?

Employment discrimination laws protect both employees and job applicants. This includes full-time and part-time workers, as well as certain categories of independent contractors and volunteers. Protections also apply to former employees who may face discrimination in terms of references or eligibility for rehire.

What Types of Companies Are Covered by Employment Discrimination Laws?

Most federal employment discrimination laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the threshold is lower for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (20 or more employees) and the Equal Pay Act, which applies to most employers regardless of size.

Requirements for Employers

Employers are required to provide a workplace free of discriminatory practices. This involves making employment decisions based on qualifications rather than protected characteristics.

Employers also have a responsibility to address and remedy known instances of discrimination or harassment. They must also provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities and certain religious practices, as long as it does not cause undue hardship.

What Are Discriminatory Practices?

Discriminatory practices in the workplace can include:

  • Unequal treatment based on protected characteristics (e.g., hiring, firing, promotions, wages);
  • Harassment, including sexual harassment;
  • Retaliation against an individual for filing a discrimination complaint, participating in an investigation, or opposing discriminatory practices;
  • Denying reasonable workplace accommodations for disabled employees or for employees’ religious practices.

Are There Exceptions?

Yes, there are certain exceptions to employment discrimination laws. For example, in certain situations where a specific characteristic is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) necessary to the operation of the business, discrimination may be permissible. However, these exceptions are limited and strictly construed by the courts.

How to Prove Employment Discrimination?

Proving employment discrimination can be challenging, as it often hinges on showing the employer’s intent. Evidence can include statements by the employer, inconsistencies in the employer’s explanation for its actions, statistical evidence showing a pattern of discrimination, or comparisons of treatment between different groups of employees.

Resolving Employment Discrimination Accusations

Typically, employees who believe they’ve been the victim of discrimination must first file a claim with the EEOC before they can file a lawsuit. The EEOC will investigate the claim, which can result in mediation, a lawsuit, or a right-to-sue letter allowing the employee to proceed with a private lawsuit.

Employee Remedies

Remedies for employment discrimination can include:

  • Job reinstatement;
  • Back pay;
  • Promotion;
  • Reasonable accommodation;
  • Compensatory damages (for emotional distress, for example);
  • Punitive damages.

In cases of willful violations of the Equal Pay Act, employees may also receive liquidated damages.

Should I Contact an Employment Attorney?

If you believe you’ve been the victim of employment discrimination, you may wish to contact an employment attorney who can advise you on your rights and the steps necessary to pursue a claim.

LegalMatch can connect you with an experienced employment discrimination lawyer who can help you navigate the complex legal process and advocate for your rights.

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