Employment Law FAQ

What is employment discrimination?

Discrimination generally occurs when an employee is intentionally treated differently because of the employee's protected category, such as race, color, religion, national origin, disability, gender, or age; or because the employer's policies, such as its hiring process, have an adverse impact on people in the protected categories or classes.

To prove unlawful discrimination, employees must be able to show that an action affecting employment was based on the fact that the employee belongs to a protected class. If the action is intentionally discriminatory, it is called disparate treatment. If the operation of the employer’s policies has an unintentional discriminatory effect, it is said to have a disparate impact.

Even if the employee's evidence is sufficient to show discrimination, an employer may be able to justify this action by proving that there was a business necessity for it or that a legitimate job qualification required consideration of a factor that had an unintentional discriminatory effect. When the employer makes such a legitimate justification, the employee must show that discrimination, not the employer's justification, was the true reason for the action.

Are there laws that can protect me from discrimination in my place of employment?

Yes, there are many laws that do just that, and the number of lawsuits being filed is constantly increasing. According to a January, 2000 report from the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, job bias lawsuits filed in U.S. District Courts soared from 6,936 in 1990 to 21,540 in 1998. Discrimination based on such factors as age, race, gender, religion, color, and national origin is strictly prohibited by both state and federal statutes. The following is a partial list of federal laws that directly address the issue of discrimination.

(1) Title VII: Prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. This law applies to public sector employers, as well as private sector employers who employ at least 15 employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces Title VII.

(2) The Family Medical Leave Act: Requires employers with 50 or more employees to grant employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (within a 12 month period) for a) the birth of a child, b) the adoption of a child, c) a serious health condition that requires a leave of absence, or d) the care of a parent, spouse or child with a serious health condition.

(3) Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Prohibits discrimination based on age. Age is defined to be 40 years or older, so this law does not prohibit discrimination against those younger than 40. This law applies to public sector employers, and private sector employers with more than 20 employees.

(4) Americans with Disabilities Act: Prohibits discrimination based on physical or mental disability. This law applies to public sector employers, and private sector employers with more than 15 employees. Some states have laws that are more stringent.

(5) The Fair Labor Standards Act: Establishes minimum wage and overtime rates and regulates the employment of children. This law applies to hospitals, educational institutions, public sector, and private sector employers with at least 2 employees engaged in interstate commerce and a business volume of over $500,000/year. Many states have laws that apply to all businesses in the state, regardless of size.

(6) The Immigration Reform & Control Act: Prohibits employers from hiring illegal aliens, but also prohibits employers from discrimination based on the citizenship status of aliens who have been lawfully admitted to the US.

(7) The Employee Polygraph Protection Act: Prohibits employers from requiring employees or prospective employees to take a polygraph (lie detector) test.

(8) Pregnancy Discrimination Act: States that employers and prospective employers cannot discriminate based on pregnancy or childbirth related medical conditions.

What should I do if I feel I have been discriminated against based on an issue such as race, religion, age, gender, etc?

The first thing you should do is to consider whether it may be a simple misunderstanding that you can easily clear up yourself, or something more serious that will take an outsider to resolve for you. Discuss it with your employer; and document your discussion in a professional manner. If you are not satisfied with the response you receive from either the person you feel is discriminating against you, or his/her superior, you will want to contact an attorney or file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. Do so as quickly as possible, as federal law and many states have strict time limits for seeking relief.

Are there protections for the physically and mentally handicapped?

Federal law (Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against an otherwise qualified disabled person in a workplace. Workplace protection covers job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training, recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoffs, leaves, fringe benefits, and so forth. There are some exceptions, such as when a person's disability prevents him or her from meeting reasonable qualifications for the job. This law applies to public sector employers, and private sector employers with more than 15 employees. Some states have laws that are more stringent, and, for example, cover employers with fewer employees.

In addition to employment nondiscrimination protection, other activities covered under the ADA include public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is morally wrong and legally actionable. Sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by many state's laws. Title VII provides that "it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

In a series of major decisions in 1998, the United States Supreme Court clarified and broadened the law. In a unanimous decision in March, 1998 the Court said: "When the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment, Title VII is violated."

The Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has defined sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when ... submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions... or such conduct has the purpose or effect of ... creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment."