Protected Classes in Employment Discrimination

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The quick answer is everyone is protected from employment discrimination. But, more specifically, who are the protected classes? Which businesses are subject to employment discrimination standards? What constitutes discrimination?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces many Federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination (several are enforced by other agencies, like the Department of Justice). These laws protect employees and job applicants against employment discrimination when it involves:

Unfair treatment because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

Harassment by managers, co-workers, or others in the workplace, because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

Denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation that the employee needs because of religious beliefs or disability.

Retaliation because the employee complained about job discrimination, or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Additionally, there are state and federal laws allowing for state agencies to enforce anti-discriminatory practices and for individuals to bring their own lawsuits against employers or potential employers. Discriminatory practices include bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, compensation, retaliation, and various types of harassment. Most of the law for employment discrimination originates in federal law, however, and they include the following:

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution prohibit certain discriminatory practices and have been construed to create a basis for some anti-discriminatory employment law.

Additionally, section 1981 of the U.S. Code provides more specific federal remedies to deter harassment and intentional discrimination in the workplace. It also provides the requisite elements for proving a “disparate impact claim” and permits a jury to award compensatory and punitive damages in situations of intentional discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in many more aspects of the employment relationship. It applies to most employers engaged in interstate commerce with more than 15 employees, labor organizations, and employment agencies. The Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Sex includes pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. It makes it illegal for employers to discriminate in relation to hiring, discharging, compensating, or providing the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

The Equal Pay Act prohibits employers and unions from paying different wages based on the employee's sex. It provides that if workers perform equal work in jobs requiring "equal skill, effort, and responsibility . . . performed under similar working conditions," the workers must receive equal pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act applies to employees engaged in some aspect of interstate commerce or all of an employer's workers if the enterprise engages as a whole in a significant amount of interstate commerce.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of age, and protects employees over the age of 40 from discrimination. The ADEA contains explicit guidelines for benefit, pension, and retirement plans.

The Rehabilitation Act aims to "promote and expand employment opportunities in the public and private sectors for handicapped individuals," through the elimination of discrimination and affirmative action programs. Employers covered by the Act include agencies of the federal government and employers receiving federal contracts over $2500 or federal financial assistance. The Department of Labor enforces section 793 of the Act, which refers to employment under federal contracts. The Department of Justice enforces section 794 of the Act, which refers to organizations receiving federal assistance. The EEOC enforces the act against federal employees and individual federal agencies that promulgate regulations pertaining to the employment of the disabled.

The American with Disabilities Act eliminates discrimination against those with handicaps. It prohibits discrimination based on a physical or mental handicap by employers engaged in interstate commerce and state governments.

The Black Lung Act prohibits discrimination by mine operators against miners who suffer from "black lung" (pneumoconiosis).

However, not all employers are covered by the laws that are enforced by the EEOC, and not all employees are protected. This can vary depending on the type of employer, the number of employees it has, and the type of discrimination alleged. An employee or job applicant who believes that he or she has been discriminated against at work can file a "Charge of Discrimination." All of the laws enforced by EEOC, except for the Equal Pay Act, require employees and applicants to file a Charge of Discrimination with us before they can file a job discrimination lawsuit against their employer. Also, there are strict time limits for filing a charge. It is also wise to contact an experienced, qualified attorney to provide assistance with these issues. An attorney can help identify whether discrimination has occurred, which various laws may have been violated, and alternative means of applying pressure and obtaining relief for you that governmental agencies may not be able to provide.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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