Overview: The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that is is responsible for enforcing federal laws regarding employee discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
It handles complaints by employees and applicants based on an individual's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information. Similarly, in most states there is a fair employment agency that functions in much the same manner.
Generally, an individual claiming discrimination under federal law may not directly file a lawsuit in court, but rather, the individual must first exhaust his or her administrative remedies and file a charge with the EEOC or an applicable state fair employment agency.
The EEOC investigates employment discrimination claims and also provides mediation services in order to effectuate a settlement. If a settlement is not possible, the EEOC will file a lawsuit in federal court to protect the rights of the individuals involved as well as the public interest in eliminating employment discrimination. The EEOC also provides leadership and guidance on all federal employment discrimination laws.
Trends: Employers should be aware that the EEOC has identified the following as some its priorities in the 2013 to 2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP): targeting discriminatory recruiting and hiring practices; protecting immigrant and migrant workers; enforcing equal pay laws; expanding efforts to combat harassment; and enabling individuals to exercise their rights under employment discrimination laws.
Building on this, the EEOC updated its SEP for 2017-2021 and in addition to the previously identified issues, the EEOC stated that it will further focus on the following: issues related to complex employment relationships (temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, gig economy); backlash against Muslim and Middle Eastern workers; lack of diversity in the technology industry; the use of data driven screening tools with regard to barriers in recruiting and hiring; inflexible leave policies, pay disparities among protected groups; and questionable waivers, releases, and arbitration agreements.
Employers should also note that the EEOC has broad powers to subpoena employee records and information during the course of an investigation which may include names, contact information, social security numbers and reasons for employee terminations. The EEOC is generally entitled to such information so long as it is relevant or related to a charge of discrimination or harassment.
Author: Beth P Zoller, JD, Legal Editor
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