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Employment Discrimination

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Employment Law governs the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees in the workplace. Also referred to as labor law, these rules are designed to keep workers safe and make sure they are treated fairly, as well as to protect employers’ interests. The common law rules of employment created by courts and practiced in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds were that of at will employees, who could be fired for no reason at all. Employment laws in present day society have evolved to represent both employer and employee and are now based on federal and state statutes and legislation as well as court decisions. The evolution of these laws can be traced back to the United States Constitution, which provides protection against discrimination by federal and state governments. The Fifth Amendment prohibits the federal government from depriving individuals of “life, liberty, or property,” without due process of the law and guarantees that each person receive equal protection of the laws. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from violating an individual’s rights of due process and equal protection.

Discrimination in the workplace is an integral area of employment law cases. Employment discrimination occurs when employers illegally single out employees or applicants on the basis of their characteristics (uslegal.com). Employment Discrimination laws were created to prevent discrimination from employers, based on race, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability, and age. Discrimination can include bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, compensation, and various types of harassment. The main body of employment discrimination laws is composed of federal and state statutes and are also referred to as equal employment opportunity laws, anti-discrimination laws and civil rights laws. The past half-century has seen many changes to Discrimination Law. Congress has enacted a multitude of legislation to protect employee rights and prevent discrimination in the workplace. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits employers and unions from paying wages based on sex when work is equal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to treat employees differently based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, age, or disability.

Title VII of this act, specifically prohibits discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, and discrimination because of pregnancy. Under the Act it is also illegal for an employer to take retaliatory actions against any individual for opposing employment practices, filing a discrimination charge or for testifying, assisting or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing. Anti-discrimination laws and related regulations that deal with employment are enforced at the Federal level by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC mandates only the minimums to which employers in all states must adhere (eeoc.gov). States and local jurisdictions are permitted to enact their own employment discrimination laws that include or expand the minimum protections afforded by Federal laws. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

To be considered in violation of Federal Employment Discrimination Laws, the discrimination must single out employees on the basis of age, creed, disability, national origin, race, color, religion, genetics or gender, in violation of Federal employment discrimination laws or other laws that have anti-discrimination provisions. Discrimination under Title VII applies to every stage of the employment process from hiring, placement, wages, benefits, training, and promotions, firing, and working conditions. Illegal discrimination also includes harassment that creates an intimidating, offensive, abusive or hostile work environment for employees. Race discrimination involves treating an applicant or employee unfavorably because of race or because of personal characteristics associated with race. Color discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because of skin color. Religious discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs.

Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, an employer may not fire or refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant and must treat pregnancy as any other temporary disability. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 prohibits age discrimination against employees or job applicants who are at least 40 years old. An employer may not fire, refuse to hire, fail to promote, or otherwise reduce a person’s employment opportunities because he is 40 or older (CongressionalDigest.com). An example of such a case is Watts v. IES Utilities (2001). Blaine Watts was a training instructor at the Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa’s only nuclear power plant. The Center began a downsizing program, and selected older workers close to retirement age to be terminated. Blaine was 58 years old when they placed his position “at risk,” refused to transfer him to 8 other positions for which he was the best qualified person, and hired younger people for each position. The case was tried to a jury in the Northern District of Iowa in October of 2001.

The jury awarded Blaine about $680,000 as well as front pay and attorney’s fees of about $526,000 and costs of about $74,000. Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability. A disabled person is someone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. An employer may not refuse to hire or promote a disabled person as long as she can, with reasonable accommodation, perform the essential functions of the job (Burkhauser et al., 2012). Under EEOC rules, physical and mental disabilities are to be treated the same. In the case of Middleton v. Security Savings Bank (1997), Mary Middleton was hired as a customer service representative in July, 1994. She was unable to stand for lengthy periods because she was obese. She requested and was provided a stool to use. On May 18, 1996 her supervisor told her she was being transferred to a different branch where she would be a drive-up teller. She learned that she would be required to stand all day.

She reminded her supervisor she could not stand for long periods because of her obesity and therefore she could not accept the position. He never responded to her request for accommodation and she was never even formally terminated. Two physicians testified that Mary’s obesity was caused by her genetic pre- disposition, and resulted in substantial disability. The jury awarded her $49,000 in back pay and emotional distress, as well as $40,431 in front pay, plus attorney’s fees. The cost-benefit model compiled through research by Burkhauser et al., in their Industrial and Labor Relations Review journal “The Importance Of Anti-Discrimination And Workers’ Compensation Laws On The Provision Of Workplace Accommodations Following The Onset Of A Disability”(2012), is a key example of the importance to employers un adhering to the ADA, as it shows the cost benefits of employers providing accommodations to employees with work limitation and allows employers to consider the expected penalties of refusing to provide reasonable accommodations, which include the costs associated with an employee filing a discrimination charge.

Plaintiffs in Title VII cases have two ways of proving discrimination; disparate treatment and disparate impact. Disparate treatment requires the plaintiff to show that he/she was treated differently because of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Disparate impact applies if the employer has a rule that, is not directly discriminatory, but in practice excludes too many people in a protected group (Beatty et al. 2008). There is a statute of limitations when taking legal action and filing a case of employment discrimination, which begins on the date the alleged discrimination took place. Consulting with a lawyer or contacting the EEOC are vital steps in assuring ones job and rights are protected. Society is better off if every member has the opportunity to work. Employment Law has made tremendous leaps since the 1960’s and continues to evolve as new cases are filed and precedents are set, but still has a long way to go in ensuring that the basic human need of financial security through fair and equal employment.

C. Elizabeth Hirsh, an associate professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair in Inequality and LawAdultism at the University of British Columbia, sums it up best in her American Behavioral Scientist article, Beyond Treatment and Impact: A Context-Oriented Approach to Employment Discrimination (2014); “If we hope to remedy discrimination in its more complex, embedded, and entangled forms, we must take seriously recent calls to move beyond the bifurcation of the current disparate treatment and disparate impact doctrines toward a multilevel, context-oriented view….”. The importance of employment and in turn the laws created to protect the rights of those employed is summed up best in Ephesians 4:28 (NIV) which states, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need”. Giving of ourselves, be it by labor, wages earned from labor, or the gains of such is the purpose that our Lord has in giving us the mind, body, spirit, and ability to work and produce.

Antidiscrimination in the Workplace. (2013). Congressional Digest, 92(10), 9-11. Beatty, Jeffrey F., and Susan S. Samuelson. (2007) Introduction to Business Law. Mason, OH: Thomson/West.
Burkhauser, R. V., Schmeiser, M. D., & Weathers Ii, R. R. (2012). The Importance of Anti-Discrimination and Workers’ Compensation Laws on the Provision of Workplace Accommodations Following the Onset of a Disability. Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 65(1), 161-180. Employment Discrimination Law & Legal Definition. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://definitions.uslegal.com/e/employment-discrimination/

Hirsh, C. (2014). Beyond Treatment and Impact: A Context-Oriented Approach to Employment Discrimination. American Behavioral Scientist, 58(2), 256-273. Overview. (n.d.) About the EEOC: Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/

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