Most employees are protected against employment discrimination by federal laws. When those laws are broken, and you’re discriminated against due to your age, disability, race, or sex, the EEOC can be your best friend. You can get advice and file charges against your employer, and be protected from retaliation too.
What is the EEOC and what does it do?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces the nation's federal employment non-discrimination laws. The complaints of discrimination may be based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability. The EEOC also does outreach and education and offers technical assistance programs, all with a view to help prevent future discrimination.
Anyone who works at a business with 15 or more employees can file an EEOC complaint. It’s important to note that the person filing the complaint does not have to be the victim of discrimination, but can be a witness to it.
How many claims does the EEOC receive each year?
In 2020, the EEOC handled more than 67,000 charges of workplace discrimination, securing nearly $440 million for victims.
Retaliation led the number of claims filed, being 55.8 percent of all charges, with disability claims coming in next at 36.1 percent, race at 32.7 percent, sex at 31.7 percent, and age at 21 percent.
Not all lawsuits are on behalf of one aggrieved person; many include several people who have been victims of discrimination. They are filed under various statutes enforced by the EEOC and include:
When should you reach out to the EEOC?
You can file a formal job discrimination complaint with the EEOC whenever you believe you are being treated unfairly on the job because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, disability, age (age 40 or older) or genetic information.
You can also file if you’re being harassed by anyone at work due to those reasons listed or if you’re denied reasonable workplace accommodation that you need because of your religious beliefs or disability.
Additionally, you can file if you’re being retaliated against at work because you complained about job discrimination, or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
It’s important to note that someone other than the victim can file. It can be an individual, organization, or agency on behalf of the aggrieved person in order to protect that person's identity.
There are time limits for filing a charge. In general, you have 180 calendar days from the date the discrimination took place to file a charge, but there are many exceptions to that timeline. The EEOC says it’s best to file as soon as you have decided that’s what you want to do. If you aren't sure how much time is left to file a complaint, contact the EEOC field office closest to you.
Federal employees have a different complaint process and generally have 45 days to contact an EEOC counselor.
What do you need to provide the EEOC with?
The EEOC recommends scheduling an interview with an EEOC staff member. They say it’s the best way to assess how to address your concerns about employment discrimination and to determine whether filing a charge is the appropriate path for you.
You should bring any information or papers to help the staff member understand your case, together with names of people who know about what happened and their contact information.
Have the name of your employer, their contact information, and number of employees the company employs with you. You’ll need to provide a description of the discriminatory action (for example, fired, demoted, or harassed), when those actions took place, and why you believe the discrimination occurred (for example, because of your race, color, pregnancy, age, etc.).
You can bring anyone you want to the interview, including your lawyer—but you do not need to hire a lawyer to file a complaint.
Read more: Just Fired: Is It Wrongful Termination?
Examples of EEOC court cases
The EEOC only litigates a small percentage of charges filed. The complaint has to be investigated, found to have reasonable cause that discrimination has in fact occurred, and that it cannot be resolved through conciliation.
Before going to court, the EEOC also considers the wider impact the lawsuit could have on the agency's efforts to combat workplace discrimination in the future. Here are two such cases:
A transgender woman employed by the restaurant was repeatedly subjected to sex-based harassment. When she reported the harassment to management on several occasions, not only did they fail to stop it, they fired her in retaliation for her complaints.
The 2018 settlement included payment of $100,000 in lost wages and damages to the discrimination victim. In addition, the companies that own Applebee’s were ordered to revise their anti-harassment policies and provide training to all employees.
In January 2016, a Walmart employee filed a complaint against the corporation with the EEOC. Born with Down Syndrome, Marlo Spaeth required a very specific work schedule which included leaving 10 minutes early, and for 14 years was accommodated.
Changes to Walmart’s scheduling processes led to Spaeth leaving earlier and earlier. This in turn led to her being fired for excessive absenteeism. Walmart refused to rehire Spaeth, claiming it had never received a request for reasonable accommodation.
Spaeth received $150,000 in compensatory damages; however, the $125 million in punitive damages awarded by the jury was reduced to $300,000 (being the limit for employers with more than 500 employees). Still, “the substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” said EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows.