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Workers' Rights

Discrimination And Harassment

Employers are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin, or disability. Furthermore, they must ensure that workers are not subjected to sexual harassment.


There are many national laws protecting employees from discrimination in the workplace with respect to hiring, compensation, terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. These laws cover employees in all types of businesses, from very large to very small. They also apply to employment agencies and labor organizations.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (P.L. 88-38) establishes that employers cannot pay lower wages to an employee based on gender. Equal pay must be paid to workers for equal work if the jobs they perform require "equal skill, effort, and responsibility and are performed under similar working conditions."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (P.L. 88-352) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. This law was amended in 1978 (P.L. 95-555), making it unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition. This law not only applies to hiring but also to promotion 0 Court ruled in Robinson v. Shell Oil Company (No. 95-1376) that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected workers from retaliation for filing complaints about discrimination on the job. This ruling included forbidding retaliation in the form of a bad job recommendation after the worker is no longer employed.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (P.L. 90-202) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against individuals aged forty or older with respect to hiring, compensation, and employment on the basis of age.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA; P.L. 101-336) makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate in hiring, compensating, or employing individuals with disabilities. This law applies to companies that have fifteen or more employees. The law requires reasonable accommodation for disabled applicants and employees. For example, if an employee cannot fit his or her wheelchair through the entrance to the workplace, the employer may be required to alter that entrance or provide a different work area. The ADA affected fifty million Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century, according to the ADA Web site (http://www.ada.gov/). In fiscal year 2004, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it received 15,376 new charges of disability discrimination and resolved 16,949 cases.

In November 1999, Congress passed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act to give Americans with disabilities both the incentive and the means to seek employment. In part, this provides assurance to disabled workers that they will not lose their medical insurance if their income or savings exceed certain levels.

State and local laws extend the coverage of the federal statutes in different ways. Some state laws extend federal protections to employers who are not covered by those statutes because of their small size, for example. Other states protect against discrimination based on factors not covered by federal law, such as sexual preference.

Sexual Harassment

Workers have the right to be free from sexual harassment—unwelcome sexual advances or conduct—from supervisors and coworkers, as well as from customers and clients. There are two main forms of sexual harassment. One is demanding sexual favors in return for job benefits over which the individual has some control, such as promotions. This is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment. Another type is "hostile work environment" sexual harassment. When individuals use obscene language, post lewd pictures, make unwelcome sexual advances, or talk about sex in an offensive manner, they are creating a hostile work environment.

Sexual harassment is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended in 1972 (P.L. 92-261). Under the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (P.L. 102-166), victims of sexual harassment are entitled to damages for pain and suffering, as well as to lost pay. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Additional topics

Jobs and Career OpportunitiesCareers and Occupations: Looking to the FutureWorkers' Rights - Wages And Hours, Unemployment, On-the-job Safety, Compensation For Work-related Injuries And Illnesses - FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE