The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) fielded about 650,000 calls from workers last year who believed they had a legitimate discrimination case against their employers. While only a small proportion led to legal action, the lesson is clear: Employees aren't shy about calling in the big guns when they have a gripe. To illustrate the many ways employers can find themselves in hot water with the EEOC, here's a sampling of recent investigations that prompted the agency to take action.
EEOC Cases Illustrate Examples of Unlawful Discrimination at Work
The mission of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws. When it receives and investigates a complaint that it deems legitimate, it tries to iron out a resolution with the employer in lieu of going to court. If that fails, the EEOC files suit. Sometimes it wins, sometimes it loses.
As in other potential legal battles, employers who don't believe they've done anything wrong often decide it's better to settle than to litigate, to save time and money. That is, unless the potential monetary losses are large, or they hope to demonstrate that they won't surrender without a fight. Of course, most companies prefer to not tangle with the EEOC in the first place.
Here are highlights of a variety of cases the EEOC publicized late this summer that illustrate different categories of alleged illegal discrimination. Note that these cases are described from the EEOC's perspective, which might be at odds with that of the employer.
One employer fired an administrative assistant because she participated in an EEOC investigation. According to the EEOC's lawsuit, the employee had worked for the company since 1983. In 2015, she was interviewed by the EEOC during its investigation into an EEOC charge filed against the company by another employee.
Two months later, the company's owner attended a conference related to the same EEOC investigation. Within hours, the administrative assistant was fired, allegedly because of her cooperation with the EEOC. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement.
The federal agency seeks back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages for the fired employee, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination. "Trying to take revenge against employees for speaking to government investigators and engaging in protected activity is a clear violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII and hinders an employee's ability to work in a discrimination-free environment as well as the government's ability to do its job," according to the EEOC.
A residential care provider violated federal law when it fired an employee instead of accommodating her pregnancy-related medical restrictions, the EEOC claimed. The charges say the company fired her "once it learned of her pregnancy and her need to perform light-duty work, rather than give her the light duty tasks it made available to its employees injured on the job." Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
The EEOC is seeking full relief, including reinstatement, back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and non-monetary measures to correct the employer's practices going forward. If an employer provides light duty or other accommodations to many of its non-pregnant workers while denying those opportunities to many of its pregnant workers, the employer may be violating our nation's civil rights law prohibiting pregnancy discrimination. "In this case," according to the EEOC, the employer deprived her "of an accommodation that it consistently offered to its non-pregnant workers."
Racial Discrimination and Retaliation
A university violated federal law when it treated black employees differently because of their race, and then fired them for complaining about the discrimination, claims the EEOC. It asserted that two African-American employees in the university's financial aid department were subjected to harsher discipline than their white counterparts for "the same or similar supposed offenses."
The two employees were fired shortly after taking their discrimination allegations to the HR department. The EEOC is seeking back pay, compensatory and punitive damages for the employees, as well as injunctive relief designed to prevent such discrimination in the future.
"Employers should never terminate an employee for complaining about discrimination. Instead, employers should strive to create a culture where discrimination is not tolerated and complaints are welcome," according to the EEOC.
Age Discrimination and Unlawful Inquiries
A well-drilling company violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act when it declined to hire certain applicants. According to the EEOC, the employer used information from employment applications to discriminate in the hiring process, based on applicant age and history of filing workers' compensation claims. The suit also seeks relief for a job applicant who was forced by the company to undergo an unlawful post-job-offer medical exam. Based on the results of the medical exam, the company withdrew the job offer.
The EEOC is seeking back pay and liquidated, compensatory and punitive damages for the people who weren't hired because of the company's unlawful employment practices, as well as injunctive relief designed to prevent and address future discrimination based on age or disability and to otherwise bring the company into compliance with federal law.
Sexual and Racial Harassment
An auto manufacturer has agreed to a large settlement following an EEOC investigation that found reasonable causes for concern. The EEOC states that workers at two of the manufacturer's facilities had "subjected female and African-American employees to sexual and racial harassment." The EEOC also found that the company retaliated against employees who complained about the harassment or discrimination.
The employer chose to voluntarily resolve this issue with the EEOC, without admission of liability, to avoid an extended dispute. The conciliation agreement provides monetary relief of up to $10.125 million to those who are found eligible through a claims process established by the agreement.
A national package delivery company violated federal law, said the EEOC, when it treated a truck driver who was unable able to drive after suffering a minor stroke less favorably than drivers who'd lost the right to drive due to driving while intoxicated. The suit also challenges the company's current union contract, which requires discrimination in compensation for truckers with disabilities.
The truck driver began working for the company in 2006. After suffering a minor stroke in 2013 and disclosing it during his annual driver physical examination, he was unable to renew his required Department of Transportation (DOT) medical examiner's certificate. During the nine-month period when he was without a certificate, he sought unsuccessfully to be treated the same as workers who couldn't drive because of convictions for driving while intoxicated. Subsequently, a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the company and the Teamsters union formalized the policy of paying drivers who are reassigned to nondriving work due to disability 10% less than drivers who are reassigned for nonmedical reasons.
The EEOC seeks monetary relief for the truck driver, as well as a judgment and order requiring the company to implement policies and practices to prevent future discrimination, including modifying the current CBA with the Teamsters. "Employers must treat employees with disabilities the same as those without disabilities when issuing workplace benefits," states the EEOC.
These cases represent just a sampling of current issues before the EEOC. While most employers seek to operate appropriately, a review of these matters can serve as a heads-up when problems exist. Prudence suggests that employers should take extra time to review their own employment policies and correct any practices that are questionable. Resolving those issues in-house is easier and less costly than waiting for the EEOC to be called in to take a look.