Illegal harassment and discrimination can destroy not only your career, but also your confidence and well-being. Your job security and enjoyment are fundamental to maintaining a healthy, balanced life. When that security is threatened, you might feel like your entire world is in jeopardy.
It’s not easy to tell when an unfair employment event is an act of illegal discrimination or harassment, or when you should call a lawyer. The law does not protect against every unfair employment action. But the law does protect against adverse employment actions that are tainted with discrimination because of the individual’s race, color, or other protected status. As a general rule, an employer cannot treat someone differently because of their protected status, which means that assumptions, stereotypes, and biases cannot influence employment decisions.
Disparate or unfair treatment in the workplace most often appears in the following kinds of actions:
- Failure to accommodate a medical condition
- Non-selection for a position
- Unequal training
- Job assignments
- Disciplinary actions
- Different performance standards
- Fringe Benefits
- Other terms or conditions of employment.
The EEOC is an independent agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination statutes. This includes federal laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, disability, pregnancy, religion, genetic information, and age. Each federal statute also has an anti-retaliation provision prohibiting reprisal against any individual who engages in protected EEO activity. Protected EEO activity includes participating in any EEO process (such as being a witness or filing a complaint) or opposing activity which the individual believes is discriminatory (such as telling a manager that co-worker is creating a hostile work environment).
Whether you work for a private company, a non-profit, or a local government, you are probably also protected by local anti-discrimination laws. Each state in our area has its own anti-discrimination statute, as do many of the local governments such as the City of Alexandria (Virginia) and Montgomery County (Maryland). Under the federal anti-discrimination laws, usually an employee or applicant must file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days. If the complainant works in a “deferral jurisdiction,” however, the employee generally may file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or with the local deferral agency within 300 days. You must check your local government to be sure of your deadlines and place of filing. (Even shorter deadlines usually apply to employees of federal, state, or local government.)
In the D.C. Metropolitan area, the following local agencies have “deferral jurisdiction” that allow you to file either with the EEOC or with your local human-rights agency: D.C. Office of Human Rights; Montgomery County Office of Human Rights; Prince George’s Human Relations Commission; Howard County Office of Human Rights; Arlington County Human Rights Commission; Alexandria Office of Human Rights; Fairfax County Human Rights Commission, and more.
Local laws often protect broader categories of employees and local governments frequently change the law to protect more people. You must check with your local government, but many local human rights agencies offer protections to the following categories, even though the federal laws might not: LGBTQIA, family responsibility, personal appearance, age (18 years or older), matriculation, political affiliation, credit history, and arrest history.
Fully understanding the complex employment and labor laws that apply to federal, state and local employees as well as those employed in the private sector is challenging at best. Whether you are an employee who has a problem, or an employer who wants to do the right thing but finds it difficult to understand your obligations, you can benefit from the advice of experienced legal counsel. We are here to help. Don’t delay before finding the best lawyer for your situation. Important deadlines may lapse, and it takes time to present the best possible case. To learn your deadlines and the strength of your case, contact the attorneys at Alden Law Group for an evaluation.
A brief outline of federal employment anti-discrimination laws follows. These laws come from the discrimination-in-employment provisions embodied in Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (and the ADA Amendments Act), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. Many state and local governments, as noted above, have their own anti-discrimination laws which may offer broader protections or apply different legal standards.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination because of someone’s sex; it protects men and women, it protects LGBTQ individuals, it protects individuals from perceptions and assumptions regarding family responsibilities, and it protects against unwanted sexual attention or behavior.
Examples of sex discrimination include:
- dress codes that require women to wear skirts;
- not hiring a woman as a mechanic because she might be offended by the men’s rough talk in the shop;
- not hiring a man as a nurse, because patients are more accustomed to female nurses;
- asking female job candidates, but not men, whether they have children;
- not promoting a woman because staff won't respect her authority;
- allowing only men to coach a male sports team.
LGBTQ + Gender Identity
The EEOC and many federal courts interpret Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination to forbid employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation and to protect LGBTQ individuals.
While this area of the law is evolving, the EEOC and/or courts have found that the law prohibits “sex discrimination” in the following forms:
- Harassing an employee because of a gender transition, such as by refusing to allow the employee to participate in employee groups, intentionally using the wrong name and gender pronoun to refer to the employee;
- Denying an employee equal access to a restroom based on their sexual identity;
- Firing an individual because they have made or are planning to make a gender transition
- Refusing to hire or promote an employee because he or she is gay or straight;
- Harassing employees because of his or her sexual orientation.
A pregnant woman might not get a promotion – even though she is the best qualified candidate - because her boss thinks she will choose not to return to work from maternity leave. A new dad might be denied leave to care for his newborn, because “that’s what moms are for.” These are adverse employment decisions based on stereotypes and biases of how an individual will, or should, act because of their family responsibilities. They are illegal.
Family responsibility discrimination is real but often not recognized. If you think you’ve been discriminated against because of your family responsibilities, call our office for an initial consultation to see how we can help you.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of an employee’s or applicant’s national origin. “National origin” is a broad term that can refer to many elements of individual’s background such as the country or region of their birth or their family’s origin. National origin discrimination can include unfair treatment because of one’s accent, ancestry, cultural heritage, or ethnicity.
Religious Reasonable Accommodations
Religious discrimination is prohibited if the employer treats the employee (or applicant) differently because of the person’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or if the employer denies the employee reasonable religious accommodations.
The prohibition against disparate treatment on the basis of “religion” exists regardless of the religion, including non-traditional religions and beliefs that are not held by any religion. Atheists and the most devout are equally protected from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
Employers are also required to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, unless the accommodation would result in an undue hardship for the employer. Accommodations may include schedule changes, leave for religious observances, uniform modifications, or grooming exceptions.
Disability and Requests for Accommodations
Disability discrimination usually arises in two forms – disparate or unfair treatment and failure to accommodate. Read more »
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against an individual who has HIV or AIDS – as well as individuals who are perceived to be HIV positive. It’s just that simple. If you have been asked about your HIV status at work, or if you think you’ve been denied job opportunities or treated unfairly at work because your HIV stats, call us to learn about your rights.
Under the federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), an employee is protected from age-based discrimination if they are 40 years old or older. In addition, even if you are under 40, you may still be protected if your job is located in a jurisdiction where a state or local law has expanded the definition of age discrimination. For example, in Washington, D.C., the D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits individuals from age discrimination in employment if they are at least 18 years old.
Hostile Work Environment & Harassment
When people hear the word “harassment”, they usually think of sexual harassment involving demands for sexual favors or unwanted physical touching, but harassment can come in many different forms and can be rooted in many different biases. Harassment involving sexual assault gets the most attention in the media, but illegal harassment covers a much broader type of conduct that may target a broader segment of the workforce. Read more »
Pay Discrimination, Equal Pay Act
One common form of discrimination is disparate pay. Pay discrimination is prohibited by the Equal Pay Act (EPA) and by the anti-discrimination statutes (e.g., Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act). Read more »
Pregnancy & Breastfeeding Discrimination
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) protects women from unfair treatment on account of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. An employer cannot refuse to hire a woman, or take other action against her, because of her pregnancy as long as she is able to perform the essential functions of her job.
If a woman’s pregnancy causes her to be limited in her activities, the employer has to treat her the same as it would any other person who experiences the same kind of limitations. The law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of an employee’s fertility or childbearing capacity. Sex-specific rules that restrict a woman’s employment opportunities because of a pregnancy (or the possibility of pregnancy) are usually not allowed.
The PDA also protects women who wish to breastfeed their children. Lactation is a pregnancy-related medical condition and generally must be accommodated. Related laws under the Affordable Care Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act require employers to give reasonable break time and a private place for breastfeeding employees to express milk.
It is courageous to report harassment and to challenge illegal employment actions based on biases and stereotypes. Everyone knows speaking up can be risky. Many people don’t know, however, that the law offers broad protections for individuals who invoke their right to be free from discrimination in the workplace or who help others who choose to file a complaint. Whether you participate in the complaint process or you oppose something you think is discriminatory, your employer is not allowed to retaliate. Read more »