Employment Discrimination

Employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII prohibits not only intentional discrimination, but also practices that have the effect of discriminating against individuals because of their race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older.
Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments. Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government. Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information about an applicant, employee, or former employee; and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, among other things, provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all of these laws. EEOC also provides oversight and coordination of all federal equal employment opportunity regulations, practices, and policies. 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 these laws also include:

harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information, or age; retaliation against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in an investigation, or opposing discriminatory practices; employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex, race, age, religion, or ethnic group, or individuals with disabilities, or based on myths or assumptions about an individual’s genetic information; and denying employment opportunities to a person because of marriage to, or association with, an individual of a particular race, religion, national origin, or an individual with a disability. Title VII also prohibits discrimination because of participation in schools or places of worship associated with a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group. Employers are required to post notices to all employees advising them of their rights under the laws EEOC enforces and their right to be free from retaliation. Such notices must be accessible, as needed, to persons with visual or other disabilities that affect reading.

Many states and municipalities also have enacted protections against discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, status as a parent, marital status and political affiliation.

It is illegal to discriminate against an individual because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, or linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group.

A rule requiring that employees speak only English on the job may violate Title VII unless an employer shows that the requirement is necessary for conducting business. If the employer believes such a rule is necessary, employees must be informed when English is required and the consequences for violating the rule.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 requires employers to assure that employees hired are legally authorized to work in the U.S. However, an employer who requests employment verification only for individuals of a particular national origin, or individuals who appear to be or sound foreign, may violate both Title VII and IRCA; verification must be obtained from all applicants and employees. Employers who impose citizenship requirements or give preferences to U.S. citizens in hiring or employment opportunities also may violate IRCA.

Religious Accommodation

An employer is required to reasonably accommodate the religious belief of an employee or prospective employee, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship.

Sex Discrimination

Title VII’s broad prohibitions against sex discrimination specifically cover:

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 “hostile environment” standard also applies to harassment on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, age, and disability.)
Pregnancy Based Discrimination – Pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions must be treated in the same way as other temporary illnesses or conditions.
Additional rights are available to parents and others under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The ADEA’s broad ban against age discrimination also specifically prohibits statements or specifications in job notices or advertisements of age preference and limitations. An age limit may only be specified in the rare circumstance where age has been proven to be a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ); discrimination on the basis of age by apprenticeship programs, including joint labor-management apprenticeship programs; and denial of benefits to older employees. An employer may reduce benefits based on age only if the cost of providing the reduced benefits to older workers is the same as the cost of providing benefits to younger workers.

Equal Pay Act

The EPA prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in the payment of wages or benefits, where men and women perform work of similar skill, effort, and responsibility for the same employer under similar working conditions.

Employers may not reduce wages of either sex to equalize pay between men and women.
A violation of the EPA may occur where a different wage was/is paid to a person who worked in the same job before or after an employee of the opposite sex. A violation may also occur where a labor union causes the employer to violate the law.

Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended

The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in all employment practices. It is necessary to understand several important ADA definitions to know who is protected by the law and what constitutes illegal discrimination:

Individual with a Disability

An individual with a disability under the ADA is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having a disability. An entity subject to the ADA regards someone as having a disability when it takes an action prohibited by the ADA based on an actual or perceived impairment, except if the impairment is both transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor. Major life activities are basic activities that most people in the general population can perform with little or no difficulty such as walking, breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning, thinking, and eating. Major life activities also include the operation of a major bodily function, such as functions of the immune system normal cell growth, brain, neurological, and endocrine functions.

“Qualified”

An individual with a disability is “qualified” if he or she satisfies skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of the position held or desired, and who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of that position.

Reasonable Accommodation

Reasonable accommodation may include, but is not limited to, making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities; job restructuring; modification of work schedules; providing additional unpaid leave; reassignment to a vacant position; acquiring or modifying equipment or devices; adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials, or policies; and providing qualified readers or interpreters. Reasonable accommodation may be necessary to apply for a job, to perform job functions, or to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment that are enjoyed by people without disabilities. An employer is not required to lower production standards to make an accommodation. An employer generally is not obligated to provide personal use items such as eyeglasses or hearing aids. A person who only meets the “regarded as” definition of disability is not entitled to receive a reasonable accommodation.

Undue Hardship

An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. Undue hardship means an action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to factors such as a business’ size, financial resources, and the nature and structure of its operation.

Prohibited Inquiries and Examinations

Before making an offer of employment, an employer may not ask job applicants about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. Applicants may be asked about their ability to perform job functions. A job offer may be conditioned on the results of a medical examination, but only if the examination is required for all entering employees in the same job category. Medical examinations of employees must be job-related and consistent with business necessity.

Drug and Alcohol Use

Employees and applicants currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs are not protected by the ADA when an employer acts on the basis of such use. Tests for illegal use of drugs are not considered medical examinations and, therefore, are not subject to the ADA’s restrictions on medical examinations. Employers may hold individuals who are illegally using drugs and individuals with alcoholism to the same standards of performance as other employees.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 made major changes in the federal laws against employment discrimination enforced by EEOC. Enacted in part to reverse several Supreme Court decisions that limited the rights of persons protected by these laws, the Act also provides additional protections. The Act authorizes compensatory and punitive damages in cases of intentional discrimination, and provides for obtaining attorneys’ fees and the possibility of jury trials. It also directs the EEOC to expand its technical assistance and outreach activities.

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

GINA prohibits discrimination against applicants, employees, and former employees on the basis of genetic information. This includes a prohibition on the use of genetic information in all employment decisions; restrictions on the ability of employers and other covered entities to request or to acquire genetic information, with limited exceptions; and a requirement to maintain the confidentiality of any genetic information acquired, with limited exceptions. Title VII, the ADA, and GINA cover all private employers, state and local governments, and education institutions that employ 15 or more individuals. These laws also cover private and public employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor management committees controlling apprenticeship and training.

The ADEA covers all private employers with 20 or more employees, state and local governments (including school districts), employment agencies and labor organizations.

The EPA covers all employers who are covered by the Federal Wage and Hour Law (the Fair Labor Standards Act). Virtually all employers are subject to the provisions of this Act.

Title VII, the ADEA, GINA, and the EPA also cover the federal government. In addition, the federal government is covered by Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, which incorporate the requirements of the ADA. However, different procedures are used for processing complaints of federal discrimination. For more information on how to file a complaint of federal discrimination, contact the EEO office of the federal agency where the alleged discrimination occurred.