Discrimination in the workplace is a steadily growing field of interest for attorneys and lawyers all across the United States. When an employer or colleague violates discrimination laws, serious penalties can arise, and the victim has the right to sue and recover damages. Unfortunately, the public seems to have fallen under the misconception that discrimination laws protect only women and minorities.
If you are concerned about discrimination law, or if you feel that you might have been the victim of discrimination, please read the below FAQ concerning your rights and the rights of those with whom you work.
1. Who is protected by discrimination laws?
Everyone is protected under discrimination law. It is true that women and minorities are frequently used as examples to illustrate discrimination law, and that those two groups are most frequently known to have been victims of discrimination, but a Caucasion male can file a discrimination case just as easily and as lawfully as an African-American woman.
The real question isn’t who is protected by discrimination law, but what. Employers have a right to base wages, benefits and promotions on work ethic and other subjective qualities. However, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee on that employee’s “protected status”: race, color, religion, disability, age, sex or national origin.
2. If a coworker performs the same job as I do, but has worked with the company longer and gets paid more than me, can I sue?
Employers and coworkers are exempt from legal action if their actions are determined by seniority. Those who have worked for a specific company the longest might be entitled to higher wages, not because of job performance but because of seniority. This might also apply in the instance of laying off employees. The recently hired will be the first to go because they lack seniority; this is not discrimination.
3. Can an employer screen applicants based on protected status for reasons related to the job?
This question is raised quite often, and the answer is that yes, in some cases this is lawful. For example, a modeling agency is legally permitted to make hiring decisions based on physical characteristics, age, race and other protected classes. This is because the work for which they are hiring requires these particular characteristics.
This is, however, a very thin line, because employers have been caught imposing these guidelines as a means to a different end. For example, an employer might screen out applicants who have custody over small children. His reason for this hiring decision is that the work requires “on-call” work, and applicants who have small children will not be able to come in on a moments’ notice. However, the employer’s real reason for implementing this screening process is to rule out women from employment as much as possible since women are typically the custodial parent. This is discrimination.
4. Are there any set rules for hiring policies nationwide or statewide?
At this time, companies are allowed to implement their own hiring strategies as long as those strategies are commensurate with discrimination law. If the problem of discrimination continues to grow, however, the laws might change and the federal authorities may decide to implement more stringent laws to guard against discrimination.
5. What areas of employment law do discrimination laws cover?
Discrimination laws apply to hiring and firing procedures as well as the assignment of wages, benefits, promotions, job descriptions and employee reviews.
6. Do discrimination laws protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation?
This is a widely disputed area, and it differs from state-to-state. Under Title VII, discrimination against sex is prohibited, but this refers only to gender, and not to sexual orientation. Some states, such as California and Wisconsin, have laws the prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, though this practice is far from universal.
If an individual feels that he or she has been discriminated against because of his or her sexual orientation, the individual might be able to sue and recover damages regardless of the place of residence. The result of the lawsuit would depend largely on the extent of discrimination and the circumstances surrounding it.
7. What happens when I file charges against an employer for discrimination?
Discrimination complaints must be made within six months of the date of the infringement, and must be submitted in writing to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will then investigate the complaint, and will respond in writing within sixty days stating whether or not an infringement has been committed. From the receipt of that letter, the victim of discrimination has ninety days to file a lawsuit against the offending party. This is called a “right to sue” letter.