LEGAL GUIDE
Written by Avvo Staff

How do discrimination laws protect employees?

Laws on discrimination in the workplace address several different types of discrimination

Federal anti-discrimination laws offer a range of protections that affect nearly every employee. These laws cover everything from age to race to religion.

Whether you're approaching this topic from an employers' or employees' perspective, learn about the many ways the EEOC prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

Federally protected classes

The EEOC has identified several federally protected classes that are considered an essential characteristic of a person. The following federally protected classes are safeguarded from all types of discrimination, including employer/employee discrimination.

Age

Age discrimination arises when employees experience unfavorable treatment due to their age. Since this kind of discrimination typically affects older employees, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits unfavorable treatment against employees aged 40 or older. However, ADEA does not prohibit employers from favoring older employees.

ADEA extends to several areas of employment, including hiring, promotions, layoffs, firing, training, specific job assignments, and more. It also specifies types of harassment, such as making offensive age-related remarks, creating a hostile work environment for older employees, and using age as a primary factor in negative employment decisions.

When it comes to ADEA, the harasser can be any number of different people. Supervisors, colleagues, and clients can all be considered harassers under this anti-discrimination law.

Disability

Employees and job seekers with long-term physical and mental disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA defines disabilities as anything from muscular disorders, to some mental illnesses and sensory problems, to wheelchair confinement.

ADA prevents employers from discriminating against employees who have a history of disability or who appear to have long-term disabilities. The ADA also prevents employers from treating employees unfavorably due to a relationship with or marriage to a person with a long-term disability.

Employers are likewise prohibited from compensating employees on different scales due to real or perceived disability. Finally, employers cannot subject job candidates to pre-employment screenings or medical examinations that might reveal a mental or physical disability.

Sex

Employers across the nation are required to pay men and women the same wage for the same job. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits sex-related discrimination, essentially requires equal pay for equal work. Job titles don't need to be identical, but the work and level of responsibility should be largely the same.

The Equal Pay Act also looks beyond just salary. In fact, the act covers vacation time, profit sharing, bonuses, stock options, travel reimbursements and allowances, and other benefits.

The law states that if a discrepancy arises, the employer can't reduce the wages of the higher paid employee in order to level the playing field. This law also prevents employers from retaliating against employees or job candidates who pursued a relevant discrimination complaint or lawsuit.

Genetic information

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 is a relatively new piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination based on genetic information.

Genetic data typically includes information about hereditary diseases. Even if employers gather genetic data as part of a wellness event or another internal event, they're prohibited from using this material to treat affected employees unfavorably.

National origin

Employers can't treat job seekers or employees unfavorably due to their national origin or ethnicity. This law also prevents employers from developing unnecessary company-wide policies that make it difficult for employees from other nations to do their jobs.

Pregnancy

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prevents employers from treating female employees unfavorably due to a pregnancy, recent childbirth, or a related medical issue. Like many other anti-discrimination acts, the PDA extends to all aspects of employment, from hiring to firing.

In general, employers must treat pregnancy the same as they would approach another short-term disability. This means employers may need to make concessions, such as offering pregnant employees or new mothers disability leave, unpaid leave, or more lightweight assignments. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also grants employees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.

If employees encounter pregnancy-related complications that cause disabilities, they may be additionally covered under the ADA. These protections typically begin during pregnancy and extend until after childbirth.

Race

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on race or skin color. This means employees can't treat potential or existing employees unfavorably due to skin color, distinctive facial features, or hair textures. Like some other laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, this act also prevents discrimination against employees married to a person of a certain race.

According to Title VII, race-related harassment can include many things. Derogatory remarks about an employee's race, racial slurs, and the exhibition of racially motivated imagery are all considered harassment.

Religion

Title VII also extends to religious discrimination in the workplace and offers protection to employees, no matter their religious or ethical beliefs.

Title VII requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for employees' religious needs. For instance, employers must make reasonable attempts to allow employees time off during weekly or other regular religious observances.

Employers are also required to permit employees to wear head coverings and allow employees to practice religious grooming unless these practices create undue hardship for the business.

Additional protected classes

Along with the most common federally protected classes, some additional protected statuses receive protection from other types of discrimination.

Citizenship status, for example, is protected under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Those who have declared bankruptcy are also protected by federal anti-discrimination law.

Veterans who have completed military service are protected from employment discrimination under the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974. This act also requires federal government contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to employ veterans.

State protected classes

Across the US, the EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws. In many states, however, laws against discrimination in the workplace don't stop there. For instance, dozens of states enforce laws that prevent discrimination related to sexual orientation or gender identity, providing affected employees additional protections in the workplace.

With its relatively comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, the EEOC offers protection to millions of people working in the US. Employers should have a thorough understanding of the federally protected classes, as well as local and additional protected classes, in order to maintain a workplace that's free from discrimination.

Free Q&A with lawyers in your area

Can’t find what you’re looking for?


Post a free question on our public forum.

Ask a Question

- or -

Search for lawyers by reviews and ratings.

Find a Lawyer