Overview of federal and state employment discrimination laws

On behalf of Michael Fox

Employment discrimination law is highly technical and covered by federal, state and local jurisdictions

If an employer takes negative action against a job applicant or employee on the basis of a personal characteristic, the victim should investigate whether the act violated federal or state anti-discrimination law. It is well known that employers cannot discriminate or harass applicants or workers on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, age and so on, but civil rights laws that protect against illegal discrimination at work can be more complicated than they appear.

The complex nature of these laws – including strict procedural requirements, relatively short deadlines for filing claims and differences in the kinds of discrimination covered – suggests that a victim of employment discrimination should seek advice from an attorney as soon as possible after the discriminatory conduct. Legal counsel can explain what federal and state remedies are available, including the pros and cons of each and how they may overlap. Decisions about how to proceed under these laws often need to be made quickly since a complex interaction of federal and state laws, agencies and courts may be involved.

The pursuit of justice, however significant the effort, is likely worth it in a case of genuine discrimination. For one thing, the at-fault employer can be ordered to stop the practice, which will benefit all employees. In addition, depending on the circumstances the employee may be able to settle or obtain an administrative agency or court order for lost wages and benefits and for pain and suffering; for employment, reinstatement, or promotion; for attorney fees and costs; and in some cases, for punitive damages intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from similar behavior.

Most federal anti-discrimination laws are enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency that investigates and adjudicates such claims. The kinds of work discrimination and harassment protected against by the EEOC include:

  • Age, if 40 or older
  • Disability, including the requirement that an employer provide reasonable accommodation unless it would cause undue hardship
  • Genetic information
  • National origin
  • Sex, including pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions; sexual harassment; and sexual orientation and transgender status
  • Race or color
  • Religion, including the requirement to provide reasonable accommodation for religious practices unless it would cause undue hardship

It is also illegal to retaliate against an applicant or worker who complains, reports or files a claim of discrimination, or who cooperates or participates in the discrimination claim of another person.

State law can also be an important source of relief. For example, most federal anti-discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC apply to private employers of at least 15 regular employees (as well as some other kinds of employers). However, similar Wisconsin laws apply to private employers with even one employee. Such laws in Illinois reach private employers of at least 15, except that only one employee is enough for claims based on pregnancy, disability, retaliation or sexual harassment. State laws may also vary from federal remedies in claim-filing deadlines or other procedural requirements, in the availability of lawsuits in court, in the kinds of discrimination prohibited and the kinds of damages and other remedies recoverable.

Finally, local laws, codes and ordinances may provide additional protections against employment discrimination. For example, a city or county law may grant legal remedies through a local public agency over and above the remedies available on the state or federal levels, such as protections against additional forms of discrimination and retaliation or coverage of different kinds or sizes of employers.

The attorneys at Fox & Fox, S.C., with offices in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago, represent victims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation by employers throughout the state of Wisconsin and in Cook County, Illinois.