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Protected Classes and Discrimination in California 

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A protected class is a group of people who have specific identifiable traits that have protection under federal and state laws from discrimination in the workplace. Employers cannot use traits, such as gender, age, or race, as the basis for making decisions regarding someone’s employment.

Federal anti-discrimination laws apply to businesses with at least fifteen employees. The identifiable traits included in these laws vary between companies with fifteen to nineteen workers and businesses with twenty or more employees. California’s anti-discrimination laws apply to businesses with at least five employees. 

Federal Workplace Discrimination Law

Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on identifiable traits, such as:

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

State law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on identifiable traits, such as:

  • Disability, physical and mental
  • Race, color
  • Marital status
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Veteran or military status
  • National original, ancestry
  • Medical condition
  • Sex, gender, including breastfeeding, pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions
  • Genetic information
  • Religion, creed
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age (40 and over) 

Some cities also enact laws to protect people in a protected class from discrimination based on other traits. For example, it is illegal for an employer in San Francisco to discriminate against an employee because of their weight and height.

Prohibited Employment Practices and Policies

Federal law prohibits various employment practices. Employers cannot discriminate against employees and job applicants of a protected class. Common aspects of employment that are protected by federal law include:

  • Employment references
  • Job assignments
  • Job advertisements
  • Background checks
  • Job applications and hiring practices
  • Benefits and pay
  • Promotions
  • Job referrals
  • Decisions regarding discharge and discipline
  • Recruiting new employees

Common Forms of Workplace Discrimination

Federal and state laws about workplace discrimination cover a range of scenarios. Local statutes might prohibit discrimination against specific identifiable traits that aren’t a factor under state laws. Understanding these laws is vital to know whether you have a legal case to pursue against your employer.

Common forms of discrimination in the workplace include: 

Hostile Work Environment

Many people don’t realize the impact of a hostile work environment. It is a form of discrimination that involves a protected class member’s trait.

For example, an employer can create a hostile work environment by making jokes about their employee’s disability even if the disability doesn’t interfere with their ability to do their job. 

Medical Discrimination

Discriminating against someone because of a medical condition is illegal at the state and federal levels. Employers cannot make employment-related decisions based on a protected class member’s medical status, such as firing someone for a recently diagnosed disease.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination that involves nonverbal and verbal acts. Harassment about an employee’s sexual characteristics or that person’s inability to feel comfortable and safe in the workplace could prevent them from doing their job.

Other common forms of discrimination by employers include:

  • Instituting offensive types of dress codes
  • Refusing to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s disability or religion
  • Rejecting a job applicant due to a prior arrest record
  • Terminating someone based on a protected trait
  • Forcing an employee to resign by subjecting them to repeated discriminatory acts
  • Failing to provide adequate accessibility for disabled individuals
  • Choosing not to promote someone because of pregnancy
  • Using unfair disciplinary actions
  • Denying employee benefits

Contact Us

Since 2004, Wagner Zemming Christensen, LLP, has had years of experience working with companies whose employees have filed workplace discrimination claims and lawsuits. If your employee has alleged discrimination, don’t go through this without skillful legal counsel.  Call 951-686-4800 for a confidential consultation with a California employer law attorney today.

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