U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

When I get asked about non-discrimination and harassment prevention in the workplace, a significant proportion of these questions focus on race discrimination and sexual harassment.  Still, employers should be mindful of other protected characteristics under federal and state law, even if charges and lawsuits on those bases are, statistically speaking, less frequent than others.

While EEOC data show that charges alleging religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace constituted only 4% of charges received in fiscal year 2017, religious discrimination and harassment are prohibited by Title VII and pose significant liability risks to employers.  A lawsuit filed recently in federal court in Florida highlights this point.

Christine Choo-Yick was an employee of the US Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency within the federal Department of Homeland Security.  Ms. Choo-Yick is a person of Muslim faith.  While she also alleged sexual harassment, the allegations in her complaint primarily focus on harassment directed at her in the workplace on the basis of her religion:

8. [ . . . ] b.  Many of the Plaintiff’s co-workers have made derogatory and unethical comments about the Plaintiff’s faith and/or race.

c.  During the week of September 4, 2017, Officer Sean Stephens laughed at and criticized the Plaintiff for wearing a Hijab Muslim hair scarf.  He further stated, “what is that you have on your head,” while humiliating the Plaintiff with boisterous laughter.

d.  On or around October 10, 2017, a visiting employee called the Plaintiff a “Hijabist” and a “terrorist.”

e.  On or around November 2, 2017, a co-worker stated that the Plaintiff was a member of ISIS.

Needless to say, these alleged comments are abhorrent.  However, evidence suggests incidents like this are becoming more frequent.  A wide-ranging 2017 study by the Pew Research Center that found incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination in America are on the rise, with 48% of U.S. Muslims saying they were subject to at least one discriminatory incident based on their religion within the previous year.  In the same study, an estimated 75% of U.S. Muslims agreed that there is “a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the United States.”

Apart from the obvious issues of religious discrimination and harassment, comments of this type in the workplace may also implicate discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin under Title VII, depending on the facts.  Indeed, the potential for these issues to be intertwined prompted the EEOC to publish a reminder of employers’ obligations to prevent discrimination and harassment on each of these bases in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

The bottom line for employers: discrimination or harassment on the basis of religion is prohibited.  Period, full stop.  Employers’ policies, practices, and non-discrimination and harassment prevention trainings should be careful not to neglect this point.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the lead agency that administers federal anti-discrimination laws, has publicly announced its preliminary data for Fiscal Year 2018 regarding charges of sexual harassment in the workplace.

And while the data are still preliminary, they are striking, perhaps reflecting the growth and influence of the #MeToo movement.

In several key metrics, the EEOC announced it had seen increasing results relating to charges of sexual harassment in the workplace in FY 2018:

  • the EEOC filed 41 lawsuits against employers that included claims of sexual harassment, an increase of over 50% from the previous year;
  • the EEOC obtained $70 million for employees through enforcement action, an increase of over 47% (or $22.5 million) from the previous year; and
  • discrimination charges filed by employees with the EEOC that included sexual harassment allegations increased by 12% from the previous year.

This uptick in activity related to workplace sexual harassment is part of a longer-term emphasis by the EEOC.  For example, the agency launched a training program in October, 2017, following on the heels of the agency’s extensive task force report on workplace harassment that it issued in 2016.  In addition, the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2021 includes preventing systemic workplace harassment as one of its six substantive area priorities.

In light of the EEOC’s intensifying focus on sexual harassment and the increase in sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC, employers should consider reviewing and updating their anti-harassment training programs, policies, and practices.

 

Volvo Group North America, LLC will pay $70,000 and institute a three-year consent decree to resolve a federal disability discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).

According to the suit, Volvo made a conditional job offer to a qualified applicant for a laborer position at its Hagerstown, Maryland facility.  The applicant, a recovering drug addict enrolled in a supervised medication-assisted treatment program, disclosed during his post-offer physical that he was taking medically prescribed suboxone.  When he arrived for his first day of work, a human resources representative told the applicant that Volvo could not hire him because of his suboxone use, the EEOC said.

The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Volvo Group North America, LLC, Civil Action No. 1:17-cv-02889) alleging that Volvo violated Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to conduct an individualized assessment to determine what effect, if any, the suboxone had on the applicant’s ability to perform the job.

In addition to the $70,000 in monetary relief to the applicant, the consent decree prohibits Volvo from violating the ADA in the future. Additionally, Volvo will distribute to all employees at its Hagerstown facility an ADA policy explaining the right to a reasonable accommodation and will amend its policy on post-offer medical and drug evaluations to explain how it will assess whether an employee’s or applicant’s lawful use of prescription medication poses a threat under the ADA.  Volvo will also provide ADA training, report to the EEOC about its handling of future complaints of disability discrimination, and post a notice regarding the settlement.

 

This case is a good reminder to employers that the ADA protects recovering addicts who are not currently using illegal drugs and prohibits discrimination on the basis of past drug addiction. Of course, employers are allowed to hold such individuals to the performance standards applicable to their jobs, may prohibit the use of illegal drugs in the workplace, and may require that employees not be under the influence of illegal drugs in the workplace.  However, recovering addicts prescribed medication as part of a treatment program are likely entitled to full ADA protection, including the right to a reasonable accommodation that does not cause undue hardship to the employer.  This means that employers cannot simply dismiss individuals in such a treatment program as unfit for employment.  Instead, employers should routinely review their policies regarding the use of prescribed medications to ensure compliance with the ADA.

 

TSpring Cleaninghe equinox has come and went, meaning warm weather is thankfully approaching. This also means spring hiring season is here for many employers. However, caution is advised. Given the ease of un-vetted online job postings, many forget that these posts are legal minefields (and public too). Federal, state, and local agencies (as well as plaintiffs’ attorneys) can see job ads just as well as potential candidates. As you pack away the winter coats, make sure to dust off your job posts and remove any potential legal snares.

One of the most common issues we see regarding job ads is “preference” language. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) explicitly states that it is “illegal for an employer to publish a job advertisement that shows a preference . . . because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” While this may seem obvious, inadvertent word usage that may show a preference for one protected category over another is often overlooked.

For example, the EEOC notes that the phrase “recent college graduates” may indicate a preference for younger employees, and may violate the law. In addition, historically gendered job titles are frequently used in the hospitality industry, such as “waitress,” “hostess,” or “delivery boy.” Government agencies will often argue that such terms indicate a preference for one sex, gender, or age over another, even if all sexes, genders, and ages were welcome to apply. Moreover, legitimate job requirements, such as “must be able to lift ‘x’ pounds,” must be evaluated with legal counsel to ensure that disability and accommodation laws are complied with, as well as to ensure no overtime exemption misclassification issues are created.

In addition, in some states and localities additional discrimination protections are offered above those available under federal law. The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“NYCCHR”) issued notable guidance in 2015 on the treatment of transgendered employees and applicants. The NYCCHR has since aggressively investigated offending job advertisements that indicate a proclivity toward traditional gender categories, among other problematic conduct. (More information on NYC’s transgender guidance is available here.)

However, remember that simply sanitizing one’s advertisements is not enough. Hiring practices matter too. The EEOC notes that “an employer’s reliance on word-of-mouth recruitment . . . may violate the law” where the newly hired employees mirror the current workforce.

In sum, it is critical to review all job advertisements for problematic language, and train human resources and hiring personnel to be aware of these issues. Discriminatory job language can cause unneeded headaches with federal, state, and local governmental agencies, or that job posting may be “Exhibit A” in your next lawsuit.

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A notable case caught our eye recently coming out of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Namely, The EEOC sued CRST International, Inc. (“CRST”) claiming that it, among other things, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to accommodate and retaliating against a prospective truck driver.

The new driver allegedly requested the use of a prescribed emotional support animal to mitigate post-traumatic stress and mood disorder. CRST purportedly told the new driver simply to leave his dog at home and refused to provide an accommodation, citing unbendable company policies, and effectively rescinded his employment offer. Unfortunately, usually these policies must bend, or at the very least the possibility explored.

While the CRST case is in its early stages, and no court decisions have yet been issued, this complaint serves as a great illustration of just how far reaching the disability discrimination laws are. Here many employers would scoff or summarily dismiss the seemingly unworkable request of having a service animal in a trucking business. However, the CRST complaint reminds us of the potential disability accommodations that employers must consider and make. Regardless of the nature of the requested accommodation, the employer is, at the very least, required to engage in the interactive process with the employee and determine what, if any, reasonable accommodations can be made. Otherwise, you may end up on the wrong side of an EEOC lawsuit alleging ADA retaliation and failure to accommodate.

Please remember that when an employee or prospective employee requests a workplace disability accommodation in order to perform his or her job, an employer generally must consider the accommodation and, if it can be implemented without undue hardship, it must be granted. Anytime an accommodation request is received, never dismiss the request out-of-hand. Make sure to talk to your in-house human resources department or legal department, or involve outside counsel if necessary, to determine your legal obligations. Also, note that your state or local laws may provide additional protections beyond the ADA.

Employers take note:  the EEOC has issued an updated Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for fiscal years 2017-2021.

What’s a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP describes the areas that will be a priority focus for its enforcement efforts over a particular period of time.  In some instances, it describes a particular component of the employment relationship (for example, the application process) that it will scrutinize more.  In other instances, it describes a particular basis of discrimination that it will focus on (for example, employees who are or are perceived to be Muslim, or LGBT employees).  Ultimately, the SEP is best understood as a kind of statement of intent–i.e., where the EEOC will focus resources in the coming years.

What Isn’t a Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP is not a statement of exclusion.  That is, just because a specific workplace issue or protected characteristic is omitted (or not emphasized) within the SEP doesn’t mean the EEOC will ignore that particular issue or characteristic.  Employers should expect that the EEOC will continue to enforce all of the relevant discrimination laws on the books.  The SEP merely acts as a guide for the EEOC to focus its enforcement efforts.

What Will the EEOC’s Priorities Be Under the Updated Strategic Enforcement Plan?

The EEOC’s SEP has identified six national priority areas for enforcement in FY 2017-2021:

1.  Eliminating Recruitment/Hiring Barriers.  Moving forward, the EEOC will put additional emphasis on recruitment and hiring.  This includes exclusionary policies and practices.  In addition, the EEOC has noted it will focus on job channeling/steering and job segregation; restrictive applications; pre-employment tests/screenings and background checks that affect African-American and Latino employees; date-of-birth inquiries that affect older employees, and medical questions that affect people with disabilities. On the issue of restrictive applications, the EEOC has also highlighted online application systems that are inaccessible to applicants with disabilities.

2.  Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Underserved Communities.  Evaluating local issues and concerns, the EEOC’s district offices will identify particular vulnerable workers and underserved communities for enforcement attention.  As an example, the EEOC notes that some offices may target discrimination against Native American employees for increased focus.

3.  Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues.  These include: qualification or leave policies that discriminate on the basis of disability; accommodations for disabilities and pregnant workers; protecting LGBT employees from sex discrimination; addressing discrimination laws in the context of evolving job market structures/relationships (for example, temps, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, the on-demand or “gig” economy, etc.); and “backlash discrimination” against Muslims, Sikhs, persons of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent (or perceived members of these groups).

4.  Equal Pay.  The EEOC will continue its efforts to address sex-based pay discrimination under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act and will also focus on pay practices that discriminate on any protected basis.  In particular, the EEOC has noted pay discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, and disability remains an issue that it intends to continue targeting.

5.  Preserving Access to the Legal System.  The focus here will be on employer policies or practices that it perceives as limiting employee rights, discouraging employees from exercising their rights, or impeding the EEOC’s efforts.  In addition to retaliation, the EEOC has indicated it will focus on overly broad waivers/releases, certain mandatory arbitration agreements, and employer failure to retain required applicant/employee data.

 6.  Preventing Systemic Harassment.  The EEOC notes that over 30% of charges allege harassment (and that “the most frequent bases alleged are sex, race disability, age, national origin and religion, in order of frequency”).  The EEOC has stated it will seek to promote “holistic prevention programs” that it believes will serve as a deterrent to violations.

Of course, this brief summary is not exhaustive; click here for the full document.  Ultimately, the updated SEP is a reminder for employers to review their policies and practices as 2016 draws to a close, in order to ensure compliance.

Back in February, our Labor and Employment Department issued a Client Alert regarding efforts by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) to revise and update employer responsibilities on  Form EEO-1, a longstanding joint information collection of EEOC and the U.S. Department of  Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”).  Currently, the form seeks from covered employers information on race, ethnicity, sex and job category.

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The proposed changes, which would be fully implemented in 2018, would also require that salary information be provided for each employee.  The rationale behind the addition would be to uncover evidence of a pay gap between covered classifications and their peers.

Ahead of a second public comment period, the EEOC today released a copy of the new proposed form.  You may view the form here.

Our advice now is the same now as it was then.  Covered employers should begin by finding a mechanism to easily harvest the data, and address any technological deficiencies that hinder that collection as soon as possible.  There is uncertainly, especially given that it is a presidential election year, that the proposed changes will come to fruition.  But if the changes are ultimately implemented, employers need to begin to address the issue now so as not to be caught flat-footed.

As always, feel free to contact us with any questions.

Earlier this month, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a proposal to update its guidance on employment discrimination based on national origin.   The proposal, which marks the EEOC’s first update to this particular guidance in 14 years, contains important information for employers and is available for public comment until July 5, 2016.

What’s National Origin?

Federal regulations define national origin discrimination as including employment discrimination that occurs “because of an individual’s, or his or her ancestor’s place of origin; or because an individual has the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.”  29 C.F.R. § 1606.1.

The regulations note that the EEOC defines national origin discrimination broadly, and that the EEOC will pay particular attention to charges alleging discrimination based on national origin considerations,  including:

  • marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group
  • membership in, or association with, an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of national origin groups
  • attendance or participation in schools, churches, temples or mosques, generally used by persons of a national origin group, and
  • the individual’s name or spouse’s name being associated with a national origin group.

So What Does This Mean for the Workplace?

At the outset, it’s important to remember that EEOC guidance is not necessarily binding on courts.  In addition,  since this guidance has not yet been finalized, revisions remain a possibility.  That said, the proposed guidance provides an illuminating look into how the EEOC approaches enforcement on this issue.

Some noteworthy issues raised in the proposed guidance include:

  • Accents.  Employers tread in dangerous waters if they use accents as a basis for making an adverse employment decision, as accents and national origin are often linked.  While employment decisions may legitimately be based on accents, the EEOC proposed guidance states that this will require the employer to show that “effective spoken communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual’s accent materially interferes with his/her ability to communicate in spoken English.”
  • Word-of-Mouth Recruiting.  Word-of-mouth recruiting may violate Title VII if the employer’s actions have the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin.
  • Social Security Number (SSN) Screening.  Employers who have a policy or practice of screening out job candidates or new hires who do not have a social security number may constitute national origin discrimination, if work-authorized but newly arrived immigrants and new lawful permanent residents of a particular ethnicity or national origin are disproportionately affected.
  • Customer Preference.  Employers aren’t permitted to use the preferences of customers, coworkers, or clients as the basis for discriminating in violation of Title VII.  The EEOC notes that company “look” or “image” policies, under certain circumstances, can act as a proxy for discriminatory customer preferences; adverse employment actions taken according to such policies can serve as the basis of national origin discrimination.
  • Job Segregation.  An employer may not use national origin as the basis for assigning (or not assigning) individuals to specific positions, locations, or geographic areas; nor may an employer physically isolate, deny promotions to, or otherwise segregate individuals into certain roles due to their national origin.
  • Perceived National Origin.  It’s important to note that employer actions may not have the purpose or effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin whether that is an individual’s real or perceived national origin.
  • English-Only Rules.  Work rules or practices requiring the use of English may be national origin discrimination as a person’s primary language is often intertwined with cultural/ethnic identity.  The EEOC operates under the presumption that rules requiring workers to speak English at all times (including during lunch, breaks, and other personal time while on employer premises) violate Title VII.

These items are just a sampling of the information contained in the EEOC’s proposed guidance update.  The full document is available here.

 

 

Just days after North Carolina lawmakers passed the controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act (“Act”), the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) has filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

6276693_sAlthough the title of the Act seems to imply that it just addresses the use of public restrooms, the law actually goes far beyond that.  Opponents of the Act, say that it is a sweeping attack on the LGBT community.

North Carolina legislators passed the Act after the city of Charlotte enacted an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Act not only states that people must use restrooms assigned to their “biological sex,” it prohibits any municipality from passing certain laws regarding employment.  This means that local governments cannot pass anti-discrimination laws or laws that affect the wages of employees such as minimum wage hikes.

Many employers may like the idea of uniform state-wide consistency in the laws.  However, many businesses have already publicly condemned the law.  In some states, such as Georgia, corporations’ attacks on such laws have doomed them.  As of today, although some businesses have blasted the law, others have publicly supported it.  So far, no corporation has actually threatened to pull its business or refuse to conduct future business in the state.  It is unclear whether corporate pressure, on either side, will affect the political process.

It is also questionable whether this law as drafted will be upheld. It will be interesting to see if the courts expand the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to strike down the law as being unlawful discrimination.  The EEOC has been taking a very aggressive position that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under Title VII’s prohibitions on gender discrimination.  If the EEOC is right that the existing federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, then the Act not only implicates Title VII, it implicates Title IX since it applies to public universities.  Schools found to be in violation of Title IX can lose federal funding.

Although the EEOC has been pushing the boundaries of Title VII interpretation, so far the issue of whether Title VII does in fact outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation has not been addressed by the Supreme Court.  North Carolina lawmakers may have unwittingly pushed this issue to the Supreme Court

 

As many of you probably know, the EEOC has issued a proposed rule that, if adopted, would require significant changes to the EEO-1 reporting requirements.  The rule proposal is designed to help the EEOC gather data related to pay discrimination claims.  If adopted, it will require employers who are required to complete annual EEO-1 reports to submit pay data for all employees in addition to the number of employees in each racial classification.

This rule is likely going to increase the number of investigations and complaints filed alleging pay disparity.  The EEO-1 reports, by themselves, will be used in a broad sense to identify statistical anomalies that may trigger an investigation.  Missing from that raw data will be any legitimate reasons for pay disparities, such as experience and education levels.  However, employers will be required to comply with what could be a lengthy investigation process.

The comment period is currently scheduled to end on April 1, 2016.  Recently, ten Republican senators sent a letter to the EEOC asking for the comment period to be extended 90 days.  No word yet on whether the extension will be granted.

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