by Alex Pointon, PHR
“All men are created equal.” These words are woven into the fabric of our nation, spelled out in one of our most important documents, The Declaration of Independence. Today, American citizens are bound by a host of laws and regulations written to protect them from various forms of discrimination. Many of those laws are directed specifically at employers and employment practices such as hiring, firing, training, demoting or promoting.
Employers are required to engage in Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and protect employees from illegal discrimination in the workplace when employment decisions are based on a prejudice of a protected class. The term “protected class” simply means a group of people who are defined under federal law as “protected” from unfair treatment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the most well-known federal anti-discrimination law and prohibits unfair treatment of individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, gender and national origin. Nearly all private employers (with at least 15 employees), government employers and educational institutions in the United States are subject to Title VII.
It’s important to note, though, that while Title VII is the broadest reaching anti-discrimination law in the United States, it certainly isn’t the only one. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against individuals over the age of 40 and again, covers most employers (with 20 or more employees) in the country. Additionally, it is illegal to discriminate against a qualified person with a disability under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) or on the basis of an individual’s genetics (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008).
Above and beyond the numerous federal laws, many states and local governments also have passed their own laws to protect citizens from discrimination in the workplace. These laws often mimic Title VII, however many states and even more municipalities have passed substantive laws that protect additional classes of individuals and/or cover smaller employers. As with other employment laws, wherever local or state laws are more beneficial to the individual, they trump federal laws (and vice versa.) For example, Title VII protects individuals from discrimination based on five characteristics: color, race, religion, sex and national origin. However, many states have expanded their laws to protect against the unfair treatment of individuals based on their sexual orientation, sexual preference or gender identity. Another issue gaining momentum in local law arenas (especially by way of local and city ordinances) is prohibiting discrimination against an applicant for employment based off his/her arrest record. In fact, some localities (including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) make it illegal to ask an applicant on his/her application for employment if they have ever been convicted of a crime.
It is important for employers to understand their obligations not just under federal laws, but also under local laws where they engage in business or where their employees work. A brief summary of a few state and local laws that may affect some of our clients are listed below:
|STATE||Additional Equal Employment Opportunity/Discrimination Statutes|
|Georgia||No state law above Title VII, however the city of Atlanta prohibits employer discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.|
|Illinois||Marital Status is a protected category in this state based on the Illinois Human Rights Act. This means that employers cannot make employment decisions based on whether or not an individual is married. Other protected classes include citizenship status, ancestry, arrest record, military status and unfavorable military discharge. Employers are further prohibited from implementing English-only workplaces.|
|Indiana||No state laws beyond Title VII, however two counties and six cities prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for both public and private employment. There are an additional handful of counties and cities that prohibit discrimination based just on sexual orientation.|
|Kentucky||Certain municipalities, including Covington, Lexington/Fayette County and the Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government have ordinances that address sexual orientation discrimination in employment.|
|Maryland||It is illegal under the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act to discriminate against individuals on the basis of marriage status or sexual orientation.|
|New York||Based on state law, it is prohibited to refuse to hire, employ or discharge an employee based on the individual’s age (not just those over age 40). Marital status, sexual orientation and military service participation are all also protected groups.|
|North Carolina||There is a statute in this state that prohibits discrimination based on sickle cell trait or the hemoglobin C trait. Additionally, North Carolina considers HIV/AIDS to be a protected status.|
|Ohio||The state prohibits discrimination against an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity, but only for state employees. Eleven cities and one village prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for both public and private employment. Two additional cities prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.|
|Pennsylvania||Ordinances have been passed in most major cities and municipalities in the state banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.|
|South Carolina||The state offers no additional protections above Title VII, however two cities and one county prohibit discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity for both public and private employment.|
|West Virginia||Ancestry and blindness are protected categories according to the West Virginia Human Rights Act.|
The bottom line: Title VII protects employees and applicants based on race, religion, color, gender and national origin. However, you as an employer need to be aware that state and local laws can expand your obligations into a host of additional protections. It is vital that you know the laws of your own state, city, county, and municipality regarding discrimination and equal employment opportunity. When in doubt, be cautious! Make sure your company’s policies, handbooks and EEO or nondiscrimination statement include language that prohibits discrimination or harassment based on the following: race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, gender, genetics, sexual orientation, or marital, familial, or disability status or status as a covered veteran or any other legally protected group status. Discrimination laws are changing on a daily basis, so it is important to check your local government’s statutes regularly.