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Ethical Practices

What Are Protected Classes in the Workplace?

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What Are Protected Classes in the Workplace?
Protected classes refer to special categories of individuals that are protected from discrimination in the workplace. Learn more about the various types of protected classes and what legal rights employees have in the workplace.

Having a diverse workforce is an asset that can challenge us to learn, grow and embrace different experiences. Unfortunately, sentiment is not always shared by everyone. As a result, discriminatory behaviors are all too common in the workplace. Let’s go over the personal characteristics that are considered protected classes according to the EEOC, and how you can prevent discrimination in your workplace.

What is Meant By Protected Classes?

Employment discrimination is the unfair treatment of one or more members of a specified group as compared with others. Workplace discrimination can take place at any stage of employment, from interviewing and hiring, to daily operations and promotions, to being fired or laid off. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it is illegal to discriminate against applicants, employees, and former employees based on specific personal traits. These traits are referred to as protected characteristics or protected classes.

Which Traits are Protected?

A number of personal characteristics are considered to be protected classes by the EEOC. These traits include:

• Race • Color • Religion • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity) • National origin or ethnicity • Age (40 or older) • Disability • Genetic information (including family medical history)

The EEOC's rules on discrimination also include protections from harassment, sexual harassment, and retaliation. It should also be noted that a company's discrimination policy may include state and local laws, which may consist of additional protected characteristics.

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Laws That Safeguard Protected Classes

Equal Pay Act

The first major federal law that was established in relation to protected classes was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This legislation states that employers may not pay different wages to employees of the opposite sex who perform equal work in the same establishment. It also prohibits employers from paying different wages to employees of the opposite sex performing substantially equal work under similar working conditions. However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 women still only brought home roughly 83 cents to the dollar earned by male colleagues for comparable equal work.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

One year after the passage of the Equal Pay Act came the Civil Rights Act. This 1964 legislation prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and helped to establish the meaning of protected classes. Title VII addresses discrimination in employment, hiring, firing, and promotion. The law also protects employees from retaliation when reporting or opposing discriminatory practices, and applies to most employers in the country.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) made it illegal to discriminate against persons who are older than 40 years of age in the workplace. It also prohibits mandatory retirement provisions that would prevent employees from continuing to work after a specified age. The ADEA made individuals 40+ a protected class in any stage of employment including hiring, firing, or promotions. These decisions cannot be made because an older employee is thought to have less energy than a younger counterpart, and benefits such as insurance or retirement matching cannot be offered or withheld depending on an employee’s age.

Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972

Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 further empowered this organization to take action against any employer practicing workplace discrimination based on protected classes such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The EEOC continues to enforce and investigate discriminatory violations of the law, and is the federal agency to which you can submit a formal complaint.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The protected class of sex was expanded in 1978, with the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). This amendment to the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate against both employees and applicants on the basis of current, past, or potential pregnancy, related medical conditions including breastfeeding/lactation, having or choosing not to have an abortion, and birth control. Pregnant people are also protected under the next law on our list.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and protects employees and applicants from workplace discrimination based on their disability, be it visible or not. This long overdue legislation further expanded the definition of disability from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, which was the first law to use the term “discrimination” in relation to people with disabilities. Protected disabilities may be permanent, such as a physical or cognitive delay, or they could be temporary, including pregnancy-related impairments, a broken bone, or a serious illness.

Teaching Employees About Protected Classes

As an employer, it is vital to educate your company about protected classes and how to prevent discrimination against them. EasyLlama’s 100% online workplace training uses interactive knowledge checks and real-life work scenarios to promote knowledge retention while creating a more inclusive environment. Course topics like Diversity & Inclusion, the American with Disabilities Act, Interviewing & Hiring, and more will provide the information needed to stay in EEOC compliance and providing a welcoming workplace.

Access your free course preview today to learn how EasyLlama can support your organizational goals when it comes to employee education!

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