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EEOC commissioner puts businesses on notice: More lawsuits in 2014

Employers who run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws will continue to run the risk of "aggressive" enforcement actions by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to one commissioner. The agency filed 131 lawsuits in 2013 that resulted in employers paying litigants $372.1 million in damages. The upside for the business community was that the total value of payouts went up just 1 percent from 2012, while the number of lawsuits increased by 6 percent.

The commissioner, appointed to the body in 2008, made her observations to a group of employment liability insurance professionals in New York. The agency will not shy away from litigation, especially, she added, in complaints of systemic discrimination.

Systemic discrimination is defined by the EEOC as "a pattern or practice, policy, or class case where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, profession, company or geographic area." For example, a mining company only hires men for mining positions, even though there is a large pool of qualified female candidates. Or a restaurant chain has never hired an African American as a server.

The discriminatory practice need not be in the hiring process. There can be age-related barriers to management training programs or gender-based barriers to C-level positions. The EEOC enforces more than just Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; it also enforces all or portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act -- the federal laws that define the protected classes.

The EEOC does not have jurisdiction over every business, though. The laws apply to businesses with at least 15 employees for most protected classes and 20 employees for age discrimination. Very small businesses, then, including start-ups, will not be on the receiving end of an EEOC investigation.

However, it is never a bad idea to have anti-discrimination policies in place and to follow them carefully. The market changes quickly nowadays, and it makes more sense to prepare to be prepared to be a 15-employee business than it does to do the headcount after hearing from the EEOC.

Source: Business Insurance, "Expect rise in EEOC anti-discrimination litigation in 2014: Commissioner," Matt Dunning,  Jan. 27, 2014

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