To discriminate against an individual is to treat someone differently, usually in a negative way, due to a given characteristic. Federal law prohibits discrimination by employers and many other entities on the basis of skin color, race, gender, national origin, disability, age, pregnancy, medical background, religion, or even genetic information. Some states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, weight, and other attributes. This section covers the various types of discrimination banned by federal law, the agencies that enforce each law and how to file a claim, in-depth information about specific scenarios involving discrimination, and more.
In order for discrimination to be legally actionable it must be based on one of a number of protected classes of people and in a context that is covered by the legislation and federal authority.
Basis of Discrimination
In order for discrimination to trigger the protection of federal law it must be directed against an individual on account of their skin color, race, gender, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, or a limited number of other categories. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on race are strongest and have been on the books for the longest period of time. Other categories have been introduced more recently and may be expansive or restrictive depending on the category and context.
A combination of legislation and Supreme Court interpretation of existing laws have led to an expansion of civil rights to include groups that were not previously protected. Transgender and homosexual victims were not, at one time, protected by anti-discrimination laws. In addition to extending protection to these individuals; legislative changes now also protect those perceived to belong to one of the enumerated groups by their persecutor. For example, if someone was denied a promotion at their job because they are believed to be homosexual they would now have an actionable claim of discrimination against their employer, even if they are actually heterosexual.
Context of Discrimination
There are some contexts in which discrimination does not result in litigation. Someone may discriminate as an individual in a social context without exposing themselves to a lawsuit, though they may lose some friends.
For discrimination to be legally actionable it must be directed at one of the recognized protected categories of people and must also take place in one of a number of settings such as in employment, education, housing, government benefits or services, health care, land use and zoning, lending and credit, public accommodations, transportation, or voting.
Prohibitions on discrimination are scattered throughout the law. However, most bars to discrimination originate in the U.S. Code Title 42, Chapter 21, where a number of civil rights acts by the federal government have been collected, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Other significant federal laws include the Fair Housing Act, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Individual states have also enacted laws to protect the civil rights of their citizens, though the scope of those protected and the context in which they are protected varies greatly from state-to-state.
What is workplace discrimination?
Workplace discrimination is when a person singles out someone based on physical appearance or beliefs, and then treats them in an unfair or unequal manner. Many forms of discrimination are illegal under federal law, including discrimination based on age, race, gender, disability, or religion.
Not every kind of workplace discrimination violates state or federal laws. For instance, while many states prevent discrimination based on marital status, this isn't a federally protected status.
In states that don't have any protections, it would be perfectly legal for an employer to refuse to hire someone because their spouse already works at the company.
But in states that do, such an act would be illegal. This makes it important to check the laws in your state if you believe you have a workplace discrimination claim.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, enforces most discrimination laws. These laws define the various protected groups and apply to multiple settings. In addition to employment, they also cover education, housing, health care, transportation, voting, public accommodations, and government benefits.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992 are 2 of the most important pieces of legislation related to discrimination. One of the most famous discrimination cases, Brown v. Board of Education, also helped shape how antidiscrimination laws apply to the workplace.
In addition to federal laws, most states have their own antidiscrimination laws that build upon federal legislation. A discrimination attorney who practices in your state can help you determine what is discrimination (and what isn't) based on where you live and work.
Discrimination in the workplace can happen during the hiring process for an open position, during wage negotiations, or during any of the following:
Hiring decisions: Making a hiring decision based on race or any other protected group is illegal. Employers often need to state the reason for selecting one applicant over another to prove that no discrimination occurred.
Firing decisions: Employees are protected from terminations based on discrimination. In other words, employers cannot legally lay off people based on their gender, race, or any other protected characteristic.
Promotion decisions and employee salaries: Employers should provide an equal and fair wage to employees based on experience and skill. Basing employee pay on protected characteristics, such as gender, is illegal.
Disciplinary acts: Disciplining an employee for certain reasons may constitute workplace discrimination. For example, an employee who finds herself repeatedly subject to disciplinary action for spending time away from work at doctor visits for pregnancy checkups could have a discrimination case.
Most employees in the US are employed "at-will." If you are an at-will employee, your employer can terminate your employment without reason at any time. Likewise, you can resign at any time without penalty.
Federal laws, however, protect you from termination because of discrimination. While your boss could terminate your employment for dying your hair purple, your employer cannot fire you because of your skin color.
Anti-discrimination laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. For example, reasonable accommodations would require a ramp or elevator for employees who cannot physically climb stairs.
However, employers also receive protections from undue hardship. If an employer would need to spend a significant amount of money to create accommodations when they lack the funds to do so, the employer may not have to make accommodations.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination in the workplace, report the incident as soon as it occurs. You can usually issue a complaint through your company's human resources department. Most employers try to resolve discrimination complaints immediately.
If a formal discrimination complaint does not work, you can escalate your complaint into a lawsuit. An employment attorney or a discrimination attorney can provide a further explanation of discrimination laws and create your case by appealing to the EEOC.
In most cases, your employer will try to settle out of court, but an attorney can still help you receive a fair settlement in such cases. In the event of an EEOC investigation, the process may take two or three years.
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