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How the EEOC Protects All Workers

How the EEOC Protects All Workers

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) serves as a watchdog against workplace discrimination. That should be good news to every worker in America. Because whether you are black, brown, red, yellow or white; young or old; male or female; on crutches or in a wheelchair, you are in danger of being discriminated against.

More Than Special Interests

“We're not just talking about special interests,” notes Paul Igasaki, who served eight years as vice chair of the EEOC. “We're all protected in some way.”

The EEOC receives 80,000 private-sector charges annually. Initially, after its establishment in 1964, it focused on discrimination based on race/color, religion, sex and national origin. Age discrimination was added in 1967, disabilities in 1990 and genetic information in 2009. Since that time, workers and employers have learned that discrimination works in subtle, insidious ways.

Take age discrimination. As the workforce ages, people who never thought they needed protection are turning to the EEOC. A man who worked for a company for decades may be deemed “too expensive” -- managers might attempt to force him out by cutting back on his assignments, or passing his clients to someone new.

Or take disability. A woman who has experienced a physical or psychological trauma may be assumed to be unable to return to work, although she is fully capable of functioning. Perhaps she needs only a telephone device or a ramp in order to perform her role as she did before the trauma.

Pregnant women -- whether job applicants, or those with established careers -- comprise another group covered by EEOC regulations. If a pregnant employee is unable to perform her job, the employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee by providing modified tasks, alternative assignments, disability leave or leave without pay. And employers must hold open a job for a woman on leave for pregnancy the same length of time jobs are held open for employees on sick or disability leave.

But men are protected too. Males can (and do) complain to the EEOC of sexual harassment by women, or other men. The harassers can be supervisors, colleagues, even nonemployees. Similarly, a Caucasian job applicant passed over because an African American employer claimed to feel more comfortable working with African Americans may complain to the EEOC.

When You Might Need Them

The EEOC offers plenty of advice for employees who feel they have been discriminated against. Documenting every incident of alleged discrimination is important. Of course, it is far easier for the agency to act when there is a pattern of discrimination.

“If all of a sudden everyone over age 40 is terminated, or every woman in a department says she is harassed, that's where you'll see the EEOC really take action,” says Jim Bertoluzzi, a human resources representative at Tauck World Discovery, the international travel company.

Bertoluzzi applauds the organization's work. “They provide guidelines to keep employers focused, and the result is good for business. They help ensure we hire a diverse work group, and that helps any business deliver results,” he says. “From an HR standpoint, we know our hiring practices must be consistent, the same for all applicants. If the EEOC comes in, we have to show we asked every applicant the same questions, and based on their answers we called three of them back. Then we have to show that those three interviewed with the same people, and based on that, here is why we hired this one.”

Lu Pham, a managing shareholder at Lynn Pham Moore & Ross, a Dallas/Fort Worth employment law firm, represents management clients exclusively, but he appreciates the EEOC. “Sometimes the EEOC feels employers are guilty until proven innocent, but there are employers out there that don't want to give employees a fair shot,” he admits. “If a company lays off X number of employees, and 80 percent of them are women, they know they'll have to justify it to the EEOC. And if they think about that ahead of time, that saves everyone a lot of wasted time.”

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