Laws Defining Protected Classes of Employees

Not all forms of discrimination or harassment are illegal. An employee may be singled out by a supervisor or employer for any number of reasons, not all of which will constitute an actionable claim. To pursue a legal claim, an employee must be considered part of a protected class by state or federal law. Additionally, the discriminatory or harassing conduct must be because of inclusion in this protected class.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

The most prominent group of individuals who are considered protected under federal law or those who are discriminated against because of their race, national origin, sex, color or religion. Employers are required to provide employees and applicants with reasonable religious accommodations unless doing so would pose an undue hardship. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

For purposes of claims filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sex includes discrimination because of pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions.

While the federal law does not specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, courts have found that individuals who are subject to sexual harassment by a person of the same sex have an actionable claim.

Transgender people have also received more protections in this category, based on decisions made at EEOC hearings. Court rulings have held that individuals, including transgender individuals have a cognizable claim if they are discriminated against because they do not follow traditional gender roles.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The federal law that prohibits age discrimination is the ADEA. This law prohibits discrimination against employees age 40 and over. It applies to companies with 20 or more employees.

A claim under this law may arise when an individual is fired and replaced with a younger worker. Additionally, the law prohibits preferences for younger workers in job advertisements or notices unless it is a bona fide occupational qualification.

Equal Pay Act

This federal law prohibits employers from paying men and women different wages for the same type of work. The law applies to any employers to which the Fair Labor Standards Act applies.

Americans with Disabilities Act

This act and its subsequent revisions and modifications prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The law applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The employer is required to provide employees and applicants to receive a reasonable accommodation for their disability if necessary and if aware of the existence of their disability. For example, the employer may adjust the employee’s work schedules, allow for unpaid time off to attend to more medical appointments or to use a special device that enables the employee to perform the work that he or she was hired to perform.

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

This federal law prohibits discrimination of employees, applicants or employers based on a person’s genetic information. This law prohibits employers from using genetic information in any employment decision. It also prohibits employers from acquiring such information and imposes confidentiality requirements on employers with such information.

Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law applies only to individuals who work in the federal government. It prohibits the discrimination of qualified individuals with disabilities.

All of the above laws are enforced by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Civil Service Reform Act

This act prohibits certain personnel practices that may cause an unfair work environment by causing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. This act has been interpreted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It only applies to federal workers and is enforced by the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Special Counsel.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

As the landscape regarding gay rights and gay marriage has changed, more and more localities have passed their own laws regarding protection to LGBT employees. Some states prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, while others prohibit discrimination only on the basis of sexual orientation. Additionally, some of these laws use language such as “perceived” sexual orientation or gender identity, meaning that protections are built in for individuals who are believed to be part of the LGBT community but really are not.

These laws are made on the state and local levels. A federal law protecting private employees does not exist at the time of publication.

Other Protections

States and municipalities may establish additional protected classes. For example, Michigan law prohibits discrimination on the basis of height or weight. California prohibits discrimination on the basis of ancestry or marital status.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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