Most working Americans are employees at will. That means that they may quit or their employer may fire them at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. However, the right of the employer to fire an employee, to refuse to hire an employee or to provide certain employee benefits is not unlimited. The employer must abide by all applicable employment laws that protect employees and potential employees from discrimination.
The Federal Laws
Since the 1960s, there have been several laws passed that were meant to protect employees from being discriminated against by their employers. That includes safeguarding protected classes of people from unwarranted firings, refusals to hire, unfair wages, unfair working conditions, unfair benefits, unfair transfers, unfair assignments, unfair access to company facilities and more.
The move toward codifying the antidiscrimination laws began with the Equal Pay Act of 1963. That Act prevents employers from engaging in sex based wage discrimination for men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment. The Act applies to almost every employer in the United States.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed into law. Title VII of that Act protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The Act applies to all employers who employ at least 15 employees.
Older workers gained protection from discrimination with the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. That Act applies to workers age 40 and older as long as the private employer has 20 or more workers. It also applies to public employers, employment agencies and labor groups.
In the 1970s two significant antidiscrimination laws were passed. The first was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prevented the federal government from discriminating against employees who have disabilities. In 1978, the Civil Service Reform Act was passed that had numerous prohibited personnel practices and was intended to promote overall fairness in the federal government employment arena.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and provided protection for qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector and in state and local governments just as the Rehabilitation Act had done for federal employees 17 years earlier.
It is important to note that many states have additional protections for employees within their state. Those laws vary and some significantly expand the federal laws. For example, some states have laws that protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. States are permitted to provide more protection to employees but they cannot reduce the protection provided by federal law. Most states have an office of equal opportunity or an equal opportunity commission that can provide you with additional information on specific state laws and protections.
The Responsibility of Employers
Employers must make reasonable accommodations for the protected classes described by federal or state law. That means, for example, that a person’s religious observances must be accommodated if it can be done in such a way as not to cause material harm to the employer.
Many argue that employment discrimination still exists in the workplace, however, the employment discrimination laws are meant to lessen the extent that discrimination affects employees and help level the playing field for all employees.