Employment discrimination laws protect you from discrimination in the workplace, including unequal treatment or retaliation on the basis of age, disability, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, and sex. (These are the so-called “protected classes.”) If you're paid less for the same work because you are over fifty or in a wheelchair, for example, then you may be a target of discrimination. Similarly, if you’re harassed because you are a woman, then you may be facing discrimination in the workplace and be protected by employment discrimination laws. Below you'll find what you need to identify the most common kinds of discrimination in the workplace.

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Is My Workplace Protected by Anti-Discrimination Laws?

Federal laws provide the basis for anti-discrimination protections:

• The broadest law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, however, only covers employers with 15 or more employees who are not specifically excluded (government agencies are not covered, for example).
• The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has similar coverage and restrictions.
• The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to employers with 20 or more employees, including all government agencies.
• The Equal Pay Act (EPA) has the broadest applicability: it covers all employers.

Note that laws in your state may provide additional protections against discrimination.

What’s Age Discrimination?

If you single out an employee or job applicant for less favorable treatment because they are over the age of 40, then you have committed age discrimination. Federal law only protects people over the age of 40, but state law may protect those under 40 as well, if the statute makes that clear. Age discrimination is illegal at any stage of employment, including hiring, firing, training, fringe benefits, promotions, or job assignments. Most of the laws governing age discrimination can be found in the ADEA.
What’s Disability Discrimination?

If your employer or interviewer treats you negatively because of a qualifying disability, then they are discriminating on the basis of disability. Even if the discrimination is because of past history or perception of disability, that history cannot be considered or used against the employee. Only “qualifying” disabilities are protected, however. For example, Minor disabilities that last less than six months are not covered.

What’s Racial and Genetic Discrimination?

No employer can discriminate against anyone based on race, color, national origin, or genetic information. This is true even if the employer and employee are of the same race or color, for example. These cases were fundamental to early employment discrimination law, and thus often the most effective cases because of the wide variety of past cases that cover a wide range of situations.

What’s Unequal Pay?

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires that employers pay their employees similarly for substantially the same type of work. In deciding if the pay is “equal,” the law considers factors like salary, overtime, vacation packages, stock options, reimbursement options, and benefits. If you are a woman and paid less than a man for substantially the same work, then you may have both an EPA and a Title VII sexual discrimination claim. While unequal pay is typically associated with sexual discrimination, it can actually be joined to just about any other discrimination case including age, disability, race, and pregnancy. So if you are a disabled man and paid less than your co-workers, then you too may have a claim for discrimination.

What’s Sexual and Pregnancy Discrimination?

Overtly sexual demands or requests for sexual favors fall under sexual discrimination and, potentially, harassment, as does discrimination in favor of one sex over another. It doesn't matter if you are a man or a woman, if the discrimination you face is based on sex, then the law generally forbids it. Pregnancy is considered separate from sexual discrimination, and has its own specific protections. Although there are some exceptions, if you are pregnant, your employer cannot discriminate against you on this basis. You may also qualify for additional protections if you are either pregnant or are a new parent.

What’s Harassment?

If people in your workplace create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment on the basis of the forms of discrimination we've already seen, then you may be the victim of harassment. If you are being harassed, then you need to report it to your employer before you can go to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for help. Although many people think of sexual harassment first when they think of harassment, harassment doesn't need to be sexual to be protected by discrimination in the workplace law. Harassment can be based on any of the same factors—age, race, and disability, for example—as discrimination.

How Do I Get Help With a Discrimination Case?

If you think you’re a victim of workplace discrimination, it’s a good idea to speak to a lawyer. An attorney who specializes in employment law can walk you through your options and help protect your rights.

Get started Ask an Employment Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one business day.

Get started Ask an Employment Lawyer a Question You'll hear back in one business day.