When you’re experiencing problems at work that you believe may be in violation of the law, it’s important to understand your rights and the resources available to you. There are many federal government laws that protect your employee rights, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is to thank for that.
Every state has its own set of anti-discrimination laws, which are enforced by state agencies. Examples of these state enforcement agencies include the New York State Division of Human Rights, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
In addition to state anti-discrimination laws, there are also federal laws in place to prevent workplace discrimination. These laws are enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
While both state and federal anti-discrimination laws may be litigated in their respective court systems (i.e. in state or federal court), federal anti-discrimination laws — specifically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) — have an administrative exhaustion requirement.
This means that before a plaintiff can sue their employer in federal court, they must first file an administrative claim with the EEOC. To proceed to federal court, you must receive a “notice of right to sue” from the EEOC.
State anti-discrimination claims can be filed directly in state court or filed administratively with a state enforcement agency. State anti-discrimination agencies typically cross-file claims with the EEOC if there is an equivalent federal protection available for the claims at issue.
In any event, you must pick your venue before filing as you cannot file the same charge in multiple places.
Navigating a federal agency, particularly one as large as the EEOC, can be difficult. Fortunately, the below information is available to help you along.
The EEOC’s Scope Of Authority
As mentioned above, the EEOC is the federal agency charged with enforcing federal workplace anti-discrimination laws. This includes discrimination based on a person's race/color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
The EEOC also enforces discrimination based on protected activity — also known as retaliation for opposing discrimination. Examples of this type of discrimination include discriminating against a person “because they complained about discrimination, filed a discrimination charge or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”
The EEOC’s protections extend to employees as well as job applicants. To fall under the purview of the EEOC, employers must employ at least 15 employees.
In age discrimination cases, the employer must employ at least 20 individuals.
According to the EEOC, most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered, and the laws enforced cover employment actions related to hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages and benefits.
The EEOC’s Dual Role: Investigation And Litigation
The EEOC essentially has two branches.
On one side, there is the investigative arm responsible for administrative enforcement. This side conducts neutral investigations of discrimination charges filed with the agency.
According to the EEOC, through its administrative enforcement process, “the Commission receives, investigates and resolves charges of employment discrimination filed against private sector employers, employment agencies, labor unions and state and local governments, including charges of systemic discrimination.”
The EEOC attempts to resolve claims in a number of ways, including through its mediation program.
The other side of the EEOC is its litigation function, which litigates on behalf of the EEOC to obtain relief for victims of employment discrimination. Here, you would traditionally pay an attorney fee to provide this service, but it's the EEOC's practice to bring various cases to court on behalf of the plaintiffs. It’s important to note that the EEOC does not litigate every case that comes its way. That when it does litigate a matter, it commonly involves an issue with a broader societal impact.
Filing A Charge With The EEOC
As a full-time employee, or even a part-time one, you have employee rights that the EEO office must support.
In general, to timely file a charge with the EEOC, you must file your claim within 180 calendar days from the date the discrimination occurred.
This time deadline "is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis."
Traditionally, to file an administrative complaint with the EEOC, the would-be complainant must first visit their local EEOC field office. However, as of November 1, 2017, the EEOC now also offers a way to file your complaint online (see below).
In addition to its Washington, D.C. headquarters, the EEOC has 53 field offices nationwide.
You can find your local office by entering your zip code in the field office locator on the EEOC’s website.
Once you locate your local office, you should call the 800-number listed to speak with an intake representative for information and pre-screening before visiting in person.
When you visit the EEOC for your intake appointment, a representative will take your information on an intake form, thereby forming the basis for your charge.
Navigating The Complaint Process
It is important to note that, although it is not required, you may want to hire a private attorney to assist you in filing a complaint with the EEOC.
While the EEOC will help you navigate the complaint filing process, it will not represent you, nor will it give you legal advice.
Rather, the investigative arm of the EEOC’s job is to conduct a neutral investigation in which it will “fairly and accurately assess the allegations in the charge and then make a finding.”
Chances are that your employer will have representation throughout the investigative process, and like any legal process, it can help to have someone on your side to understand the nuances of the applicable laws and ensure your rights are protected.
According to the EEOC, the Public Portal “enables individuals to digitally sign and file a charge prepared by the EEOC for them.”
After a charge is filed, the complainant can also use the Public Portal “to provide and update contact information, agree to mediate the charge, upload documents to his or her charge file, receive documents and messages related to the charge from the agency and check on the status of his or her charge.”
The EEOC has also developed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for individuals who may use the new system.
For additional information on the EEOC Public Portal or filing a charge, you can contact the EEOC at one of the telephone numbers or e-mail address listed on its Contact page.
Candace is a practicing attorney, working parents advocate, freelance writer, and proud mom. Her legal practice focuses on workers’ rights. She can be found writing about law, motherhood, and more on her blog as The Mom at Law.