Both California and federal law prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability. California law also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or medical condition (i.e., cancer or genetic characteristics). Local laws in California may provide even further protection; for example, San Francisco prohibits discrimination against or harassment of an employee because of his or her height or weight.
At Rukin Hyland, our attorneys represent employees who have suffered unlawful discrimination at work. Types of unlawful discrimination include:
- Sex and Gender Discrimination: The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Title VII prohibit discrimination or unfair treatment on the basis of an employee’s sex. The federal Equal Pay Act and California’s recently passed Fair Pay Act both prohibit employers from paying employees of one sex less than employees of another sex. Specifically, California’s Fair Pay Act prohibits disparities in pay for “substantially similar” work. For more details on California’s Fair Pay Act and equal pay protections, see our recent blog post.
- Sexual Orientation Discrimination: There are currently no federal laws protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in the workplace based on their sexual orientation. However, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits employment discrimination because of sexual orientation. In California, it is also illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of assumptions about sexual orientation. For example, it would be illegal for an employer to fire an employee because the employer believes that the employee is gay, regardless of whether that belief is correct.
- Pregnancy Discrimination: It is unlawful under both California and federal laws to fire or discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. Discriminatory actions taken because of pregnancy or childbirth can include treating pregnancy-related disability differently than other types of disability.
- Disability Discrimination: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and FEHA, it is illegal to discriminate against a worker because of his or her physical or mental disability, or because he or she is perceived to have a disability. Employers must provide a reasonable accommodation to qualified employees with disabilities so long as the accommodation does not cause an “undue hardship” for the employer. Employers and employees must also participate in a good faith, interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation, which may require employers to provide disabled employees with a medical leaves of absence above and beyond the leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and California Family Rights Act (CFRA). The law also protects persons who are perceived as having a physical or mental disability but who are not actually disabled.
- Religious Discrimination: Under both California and federal law, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because of his or her religion or religious practices, including religious dress. Employers cannot segregate employees based on their religious appearance.
- Race and National Origin Discrimination: Under both California and federal law, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s race, color, ancestry, or national origin. National origin means the country an employee was born or whether his or her ancestor came from.
- Age Discrimination: Under FEHA and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on age. To qualify for the protections of this law, the employee must be 40 years of age or older
What Actions Qualify as Illegal Employment Discrimination?
To prevail in a discrimination case, the employee must show that the employer took an “adverse employment action” against the employee, and that the adverse employment action was motivated by discrimination. Examples of adverse employment actions include:
- Termination or firing
- Constructive discharge (i.e. where the working environment became so intolerable the employee feels he or she must resign)
- Demotion, transfer, or unfavorable job assignment
- Reduction in pay
- Failure to interview or hire
- Denying promotion or advancement
- Any other employment decision that materially affects the terms and conditions of employment
It is often challenging to prove that an adverse job action is discriminatory because employers rarely admit they acted with a discriminatory motive. An employee must do more than show that an employer’s decision is unfair or wrong — employees must have evidence that the action was motivated by discriminatory bias. For example, when an employer’s stated reason for firing an employee is workplace misconduct, an employee may prove discrimination in part by showing that the employer did not fire other employees who engaged in the same misconduct.
There are strict deadlines on pursuing discrimination claims. In California, employees have one year from discriminatory act to file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), a necessary prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.