Federal Antidiscrimination Laws
Learn about the major federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination.
Need Professional Help? Talk to a Lawyer.
1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000e and following) prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin (including membership in a Native American tribe). It also prohibits employers from retaliating against an applicant or employee who asserts his or her rights under the law. To learn more about retaliation, see Nolo's article Preventing Retaliation Claims by Employees.
Title VII prohibits discrimination in all terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, including hiring, firing, compensation, benefits, job assignments, promotions, and discipline. Title VII also prohibits practices that seem neutral but have a disproportionate impact on a protected group of people. Such a practice is legal only if the employer has a valid reason for using it. For example, a strength requirement might be legal -- even though it excludes disproportionate numbers of women -- if an employer is using it to fill a job that requires heavy lifting. Such a requirement would not be valid for a desk job, however.
Title VII makes it illegal to harass someone on the basis of a protected characteristic (race, sex, and so on). For information on sexual harassment and tips on preventing it, see Nolo's article Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.
Title VII applies to employers that fit into the following categories:
- private employers with at least 15 employees
- state governments and their political subdivisions and agencies
- the federal government
- employment agencies
- labor organizations, and
- joint labor-management committees and other training programs.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII. The EEOC has offices throughout the country. To find the office nearest you, and to learn more about Title VII and other antidiscrimination laws, visit the EEOC's website at www.eeoc.gov.
2. Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) can be found at 29 U.S.C. 621-634. It prohibits discrimination based on age against employees who are at least 40 years old. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against an applicant or employee for asserting his or her rights under the ADEA. To learn more about retaliation, see Nolo's article Preventing Retaliation Claims by Employees.
The ADEA prohibits age discrimination in all terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, firing, compensation, job assignments, shift assignments, discipline, and promotions. A separate law, the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), protects employees over the age of 40 from discrimination in benefits.
The ADEA applies to private employers with at least 20 employees, the federal government, interstate agencies, employment agencies, and labor unions. Although the ADEA also protects state government employees, these employees may not file lawsuits claiming age discrimination -- they may assert their rights only through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The EEOC enforces the ADEA. To find an EEOC office near you, and to learn more about the ADEA, check out the EEOC's website at www.eeoc.gov.
3. Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) can be found at 42 U.S.C. 12101-12213. It prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities in any aspect of employment, including applications, interviews, testing, hiring, job assignments, evaluations, compensation, leave, benefits, discipline, training, promotions, medical exams, layoffs, and firing. (For information on complying with the ADA during the hiring process, see Nolo's article Avoid Disability Discrimination When Hiring New Employees.)
The ADA protects not only applicants and employees with disabilities; it also protects those who have a history of disability and those who are perceived -- incorrectly -- as having a disability. For example, an employee who was diagnosed with cancer and has been in remission for ten years may not have a current disability, but his employer is still prohibited from making job-related decisions based on the employee's former disability. Similarly, an employee who walks with a limp may not have a disability, but an employer who makes job-related decisions based on the mistaken belief that the employee is disabled (for example, by refusing to promote the employee to a managerial position that would require her to walk a shop room floor) violates the ADA. The ADA also prohibits employers from discriminating against someone because that person is related to or associates with someone who has a disability.
The ADA applies to private employers with at least 15 employees, local governments and their agencies, employment agencies, and labor unions. Although state employees are protected by the law, these employees may not sue their state government employers for monetary damages. A separate law, the Rehabilitation Act, protects federal employees from disability discrimination.
4. Equal Pay Act.
The Equal Pay Act (29 U.S.C. 206(d)) requires employers to give men and women equal pay for equal work. Employees do equal work when they perform, under similar working conditions, jobs that require equal skill, effort, and responsibility. Two jobs may be equal even if they have different job titles. For example, a hotel may not pay its janitors, who are primarily men, more than its housekeepers, who are primarily women, if they are doing the same work.
There are a few exceptions to the Equal Pay Act. Employers can pay men and women different salaries for doing equal work if the difference is based on seniority, merit, an incentive system, or any factor other than gender.
Practically speaking, all employers must comply with the Equal Pay Act. This includes private employers (regardless of size), the federal government, state and local governments, and labor unions.
The EEOC enforces the Equal Pay Act. To find an EEOC office near you, and to learn more about the Equal Pay Act, log onto the EEOC's website at www.eeoc.gov.
5. Immigration Reform and Control Act.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) can be found at 8 U.S.C. 1324. IRCA prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of their citizenship or national origin. IRCA's prohibition on discrimination applies to all terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, including hiring, firing, compensation, benefits, job assignments, promotions, and discipline. This antidiscrimination provision applies to federal, state, and local governments and to private employers with at least four employees.
IRCA also makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or retain employees who are not authorized to work in the United States. Employers are required to examine employee documents and keep records verifying that their employees are authorized to work in this country.
IRCA is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices, at www.justice.gov/crt/osc.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 (commonly referred to as Section 1981 because of its location in the United States Code) declares African Americans to be citizens, entitled to a series of rights previously reserved to white men. The law confers a number of rights, including the right to sue or be sued in court, to give evidence in a lawsuit, and to purchase property. It also confers the right to make and enforce contracts, which courts have found prohibits racial discrimination in the employment relationship.
Although the law's original purpose was to protect African Americans, courts have interpreted it to protect people of all races from discrimination and harassment. Section 1981 has also been interpreted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, if the discrimination is racial in character.
Section 1981 protects all private employees and all employees of state and local governments. It also protects independent contractors from discrimination by hiring firms and protects partners in a partnership from discrimination. It does not apply to federal employees, however.
No government agency enforces Section 1981 or takes complaints of violations of the law. Employees or applicants who believe their rights under Section 1981 have been violated may file a lawsuit in state or federal court.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) can be found at 42 U.S.C. 2000ff and following. This 2008 law prohibits employers from using an applicant's or employee's genetic information as the basis for employment decisions and requires employers to keep genetic information confidential.
GINA also prohibits employers from requiring or asking employees to provide genetic information. The law includes exceptions for information the employer learns inadvertently, information gathered pursuant to the certification requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and information used for genetic monitoring, among other things. Even if one of these exceptions applies, however, the employer must keep the information confidential and may not use it when making employment decisions.
GINA applies to:
- private employers with at least 15 employees
- the federal government
- state governments
- private and public employment agencies
- labor organizations, and
- joint labor-management committees.
The EEOC enforces GINA. To find an EEOC office near you, and to find out more about GINA, visit the EEOC's website at www.eeoc.gov.