Three Federal Laws That Protect Employees From Potential Discrimination


There are a number of federal laws that seek to protect employees from potential discrimination in the workplace, but there are three that stand out as particularly significant:

  • The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) of 1964
  • The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990

The Equal Pay Act

Although unequal pay between men and women is still rampant, the Equal Pay Act provides a degree of protection against discrimination based on sex. The law states if there are two employees who perform equal work in the same workplace, an employer is required to pay the employees equally—regardless of their gender.

It can be challenging to interpret the “equal work” clause as employees can have similar but not identical jobs, but the law makes a noble attempt to level the playing field for men and women. As an employee, you have the right to ask coworkers about their salary in order to uncover potential discrimination, and you have the right to file a complaint if you find evidence of sex-discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII is the bedrock of workplace discrimination law in the United States. Passed during the civil rights era, the law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and job-applicants based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. None of these characteristics can be a factor in major decisions such as hiring, termination, promotions, demotions, compensation, benefits, and job responsibilities.

Title VII also requires employers offer employees and job-applicants reasonable accommodations for their sincerely-held religious beliefs and practices. “Reasonable accommodations” has a wide interpretation, though an employer is relieved of this duty if the requested accommodation seriously interrupts business operations or places an undue financial burden on the employer.

In 1978, Congress added an amendment to Title VII which made it illegal to discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to maternity. Unfortunately, this is still a widely-abused form of discrimination, as many job-applicants and employees report they have been asked about their family-plans during an interview.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled people from discrimination in both the private and public sectors. The law specifies three forms of disability that cannot be a factor in an employer’s major decisions:

  • Physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities
  • A record of such impairment
  • Being regarded as having such impairment

Similar to the reasonable-accommodations provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer is required to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations as long as the accommodations don’t place an undue burden on the employer. However, there is a notable difference—under the ADA, an employer is required to consult with the disabled employee to brainstorm the best ways to accommodate for their disability. Employers are not required to honor the employee’s requests, but they are obligated to consider their input.

Whistleblower protection

Each of the previously-mentioned federal laws also includes protection against employer retaliation. All employees have the right to file a discrimination charge against an employer and participate in discrimination investigations or lawsuits without fear of reprisal. This is commonly known as whistleblower protection. In addition to generally prohibiting employer retaliation, federal law specifies 7 protected activities that an employer cannot terminate or discipline an employee for participating in. These include:

  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination
  • Asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages
  • Requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice
  • Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others
  • Filing or being a witness in a discrimination charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
  • Communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination or harassment
  • Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment

Note that while employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees, engaging in a protected activity doesn’t preclude an employee from being terminated or disciplined for other reasons. For example, an employer could still terminate an employee for job abandonment, non-performance, or a breach of company policy.

How does the federal government enforce these laws?

The federal government established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965 to enforce federal workplace discrimination laws. The EEOC’s purview covers discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age (over 40), pregnancy (including childbirth and maternal medical conditions), and disability. In recent years, the EEOC has also begun to enforce against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, ruling these forms of discrimination fall under sex-discrimination.

How to file a discrimination charge

If you are subject to discrimination in the workplace, you have 180 days after the offense to file a complaint with the EEOC. You can submit the claim here, on the Commission’s website. Next, you’ll be asked to meet with an agent for an interview at the nearest EEOC local office. For the interview, you are encouraged to bring any evidence of the alleged discrimination. You can also bring someone for support, as discussing the issue can understandably be emotionally difficult.

If the agent believes there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation, they will draft a formal charge of discrimination, which you will sign and submit. The EEOC will then launch an investigation into the offending employer. If the investigation finds the employer guilty of discrimination, the EEOC’s preference is to resolve the matter informally through conciliation, conference, or persuasion. If the employer refuses to cooperate or disputes the resolution, the EEOC can file a lawsuit in federal court.

At the same time, the offended employee has the right to file their own civil lawsuit against the employer. Once you’ve submitted the charge of discrimination with the EEOC, consult with an employment-law attorney to assess your options and determine if your complaint merits a lawsuit. If your case is successfully tried, you may be entitled to personal and/or punitive damages.

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Employment law issues can cause extreme distress and can affect productivity on the job. If you are being harassed at work, or dealing with any other employment issue, consider talking to our AZ employment law team to help you settle your case.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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