Both federal and state legislation protect employees from workplace discrimination, harassment and retaliation against any form of complaint of discrimination.
Each state has its own laws and some states have greater protection than that provided by the federal government while some have less.
Federal legislation applies all over the United States, but any employee who experiences discrimination may use a state employment agency, or the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), whichever is the most relevant or useful.
Some of the most important federal laws that protect employees from workplace legislation are described briefly below.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Title VII is the main federal legislation covering many forms of discrimination except for age and disability. It prohibits these forms of discrimination in employment:
- race / ethnicity;
- religious affiliation;
- sex / gender;
A charge of discrimination may be made if discrimination is found to have occurred in a workplace. Sometimes, it is a supervisor or manager who is discriminating against an employee. More rarely it is the explicit policies of the employer that deliberately discriminate.
Title VII also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee because they have filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or a state body.
Retaliation could take the form of firing the employee, paying them less, refusing to pay them or harassing them in any way.
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing Title VII and investigating any violations of the law.
Equal Pay Act of 1963
This federal legislation predates Title VII, which largely replaces most of the provisions of the Equal Pay Act. The act prohibits any form of sex discrimination in terms of pay.
For example, if female workers all receive less pay than their male counterparts who are doing exactly the same job, then this would be considered a violation of the Equal Pay Act. Any complaints about this form of discrimination should be addressed to the EEOC or the equivalent state body if working for an employer with fewer than 15 employees.
Americans With Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA)
This is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against any employee with a recognized disability unless the disability prevents the employee from doing their job to the same standard as other employees who are not disabled.
For example, an employee who needs to sit in a wheelchair is most likely quite as capable of using a computer in atypical office job as an employee who is not disabled. If the wheelchair bound employee is paid less or refused promotion, then this could be a violation of the ADA.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
The ADEA prevents employers from any kind of discrimination against an employee of40 years of age or older. Examples of discrimination are similar to those covered by Title VII. For example, a 55 year old employee with the same skills and experience as a 25 year old employee who is paid less or is refused promotion or training experience because of their age could be experiencing a violation of the ADEA.
The EEOC is the agency that enforces the ADEA and investigates any violation of it by an employer.
The Family Medical and Leave Act
The Family Medical and Leave Act (FMLA) enables employees to take unpaid leave from work to deal with personal medical emergencies or those associated with a family member without retaliation by an employer.
An employer must grant the employee leave in these circumstances and cannot retaliate in any way. Retaliation may take the form of firing the employee, demoting them, refusing or preventing promotion.
If you have experienced any retaliation by your employer from using the provisions of the FMLA, then the body you should file a complaint with is the Wages and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, not the EEOC.
What to Do If Your Rights Have Been Violated
If you believe that you are experiencing some form of discrimination, it can be an intimidating experience challenging your employer.
Although you have the right to file a complaint (also known as a charge of discrimination) with the relevant agency, e.g. the EEOC, it is worth talking to an employment lawyer first.
The lawyer will be able to assess whether your employer is violating an anti discrimination law, advise you about the legislation involved, discuss what your legal options are and help with obtaining evidence.
You are not normally legally able to sue an employer through the civil court unless your case has been investigated by a government agency first, eg. by the EEOC. These agencies will do what they can to resolve the issue first before giving you permission to sue.