Published on May 21st, 2018 | by Dack Varss0
Federal Employment Discrimination Laws in the United States
Employment discrimination laws in the United States have become part of the fabric of our society and present a series of both opportunities and challenges for employees and employers alike.
There is an extensive body of federal law that applies to issues of employment discrimination. In addition, there are also many state and local laws that apply to issues of employment discrimination.
In general, it is unlawful for an employer to base an employment decision on someone’s race, color, creed, national origin, religion, age, gender, pregnancy, or disability. Many state and local laws also prohibit discrimination based upon an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
The complexities of analyzing employment-based decisions pursuant to this extensive body of law can present challenges to employer’s in today’s work environment as issues of employment discrimination are very often subtle.
The purpose of this article is to provide a basic overview of the application of employment discrimination laws in the United States.
Federal Discrimination Laws
Federal law protecting employees and applicants from employment discrimination largely originated with a law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.142 U.S.C § 2000e. This law generally applies to and covers employers who have at least fifteen (15) or more employees for each working day of twenty (20) or more work weeks in the current or preceding calendar year.242 U.S.C. § 2000e(b).
In general, Title VII prohibits employment discrimination against employees and applicants based upon the employee or applicant’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Thus, some very small employers may not be subject to Title VII. However, most state laws cover smaller employers and thus most employees in the United States are protected from unlawful discrimination in the workplace.
In addition to the above protections, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have added additional protections to prohibit discrimination against employees and applicants based upon pregnancy, age and disability.
In essence, it is unlawful for an employer to base employment decisions, whether that involves, hiring, firing, discipline, promotions or other job-related decisions based on an employee or applicant’s status in a legally protected category, which would include an employee’s race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, pregnancy or disability.
- Equal Pay Act: The Equal Pay Act of 1963329 U.S.C. § 206(d). 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.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967429 U.S.C. § 621. prohibits employment discrimination against persons who are age forty (40) or older.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990542 U.S.C. § 12101 et. seq. prohibits discrimination against employees based upon disability and also requires employers to provide individuals with disabilities reasonable accommodations under certain circumstances.
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions must be treated the same for all employment related purposes as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.642 U.S.C § 2000e(k).
State and Local Anti-Discrimination Laws
In addition to the federal statutes mentioned above, most states and many localities including cities and counties have also enacted their own anti-discrimination laws. In many states, there are additional protected categories which might include most notably sexual orientation and gender identity.
Legal Process for Addressing Issues of Employment Discrimination
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is responsible for preventing unlawful employment practices as outlined above by employers, unions and employment agencies. Thus, the EEOC accepts and investigates charges of discrimination filed by individuals who believe that they have been subjected to unlawful employment practices.
The EEOC enforces Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, and certain portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When an employee or applicant believes that he or she has been the victim of unlawful discrimination in employment, there are several avenues available to address such claims. In general, a complaint alleging discrimination must first be filed with either the EEOC or a similar state agency.
This is what is known as the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies. What this means is that it is a requirement that an administrative complaint first be filed before a lawsuit could be filed in order to seek redress for issues of discrimination.
The exhaustion requirement prevents claimants from directly filing a lawsuit without first going through the administrative process. Once a claim has been on file with an administrative agency for at least sixty (60) days, claimants generally are free to request what is known as a right to sue letter which allows them to take their claims to district court.
As an alternative, claimants are also allowed to have the EEOC or equivalent state agency investigate their claims.
Legal Standards Applicable to Claims of Discrimination
In general, in order for an employee to be successful in bringing a claim for discrimination pursuant to the laws outlined above, the employee must first present sufficient evidence that, if believed by a judge or jury would be considered sufficient evidence to support the allegations of discrimination being made by the employee.
This is what is referred to as a prima facie case which is the latin term which means “on its face” or “at first glance”. Essentially this requires a plaintiff to have enough evidence that a judge or jury could infer from the evidence presented that discrimination occurred.
In order for an employee to prove a prima facie case of employment discrimination (discriminatory treatment) pursuant to Title VII, essentially the following four elements must be proved by a preponderance of the evidence:
- The affected employee is part of a protected class;
- That the employee was qualified for the position;
- That the employee was discharged (or not accepted/hired) from the position, and
- The position remained open and was ultimately filled by someone outside the employee’s protected class.7McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).
If the employee successfully proves a prima facie case as outlined above, then the burden is shifted to the employer to produce evidence that the adverse employment actions were taken for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.8Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981).
An example of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason might be that the employee had exhibited poor job performance or engaged in some type of workplace misconduct.
Thereafter, an employee is permitted to present evidence to challenge the employer’s evidence by showing that the employer’s reasons given for the decision were in fact a pretext for discrimination.
As outlined above, a plethora of employment discrimination laws exist in the United States to protect employees and applicants from unlawful employment discrimination.
When engaging in the decision-making process with regard to issues of employee hiring, discipline and discharge, employers need to carefully analyze the impact of the existing anti-discrimination laws and how those laws may impact those decision making processes.