A protected class is a group of individuals who have faced discrimination and are now protected under federal and state nondiscrimination laws. Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the principal federal law prohibiting employment discrimination, a number of other federal and state laws also bar discrimination. Protected classes under federal laws include:
• Age. Employers with 20 or more employees for each workday in at least 20 weeks of the preceding or current calendar year are prohibited from discriminating against employees aged 40 and older by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). ADEA also applies to employment agencies used by covered employers, as well as labor unions with at least 25 members. As amended by the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, ADEA’s age discrimination protections prohibit certain types of differential treatment based on age in retirement benefit plans. Government contractors and subcontractors, along with employers receiving any form of federal financial assistance for a program or activity, also are prohibited from discriminating based on age under Executive Order 11,141 and the Age Discrimination Act, respectively.
• Disability. Disability discrimination is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, while the Rehabilitation Act applies to employers with $10,000 or more in federal contracts and subcontracts. Under both acts, employers cannot use disability as a basis for treating otherwise qualified workers adversely. Both laws require employers to make reasonable accommodations that will allow an otherwise qualified person with a disability to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodations can include removal of structural or communications barriers, unless doing so unduly burdens the employer.
Gender or sex. Title VII’s prohibitions include gender and sex-based employment discrimination in employment. Title VII applies to private employers that have 15 or more employees during 20 or more weeks of the current or preceding calendar year, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations. Most employers with two or more employees also are subject to the Equal Pay Act, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit gender-based wage discrimination. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act amends Title VII’s definition of sex discrimination to include pregnancy and related conditions. Under PDA, employers cannot refuse to hire, discharge, or promote a woman because she is pregnant, might become pregnant, or has had an abortion. Executive Order 11,246 extends similar sex and gender nondiscrimination duties to employers with federal contracts or subcontracts worth $10,000 or more. Educational institutions that receive federal funding for any program or activity face similar duties under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
• Race, color, religion, and national origin. Title VII prohibits employers from making employment decisions based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Section 1981 of the Reconstruction-Era Civil Rights Act also bars race or color discrimination in the establishment or enforcement of contracts, including implied or explicit employment contracts. Race discrimination goes beyond a person’s skin color; it can include specific facial features and ethnic characteristics. National origin discrimination under Title VII can include citizenship requirements that adversely affect individuals based on national origin. For employers with four to 14 employees, the Immigration Reform and Control Act imposes similar restrictions on national origin and citizenship discrimination. Religion-based discrimination includes failure to accommodate or employment actions taken because of a person’s religious practices or observances, including any sincerely held moral or ethical belief that is not part of an organized religion’s dogma. Executive Order 11,246 likewise bars race, color, religion, and national origin by federal contractors and subcontractors with contracts worth at least $10,000. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars federal fund recipients from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin.
• Veterans’ status. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act bars all employers from discriminating against individuals based on past, current, or prospective membership or military obligations in the federal uniformed services. The Vietnam-Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, as amended by later laws, likewise bars employers with federal contracts or subcontracts of at least $100,000 from discriminating against certain veterans. It also requires covered employers to take affirmative action to hire and promote disabled veterans; recently separated veterans who left service in the past three years; and veterans who received service medals for active duty in a military operation or campaign badges for active duty in a war, military campaign, or expedition.


Besides these major laws and protected classes, various federal statutes bar discrimination based on a number of other factors, including a history of bankruptcy filings, wage garnishment for child support, or union status. The Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act also prohibits benefit plans from engaging in adverse discrimination based on health factors, such as restricting eligibility or varying premiums or employee contributions in ways that adversely affect or exclude individuals with particular illnesses or health conditions.


Most states have nondiscrimination statutes similar to federal laws, but often extend the scope of these laws to cover smaller employers or broader forms of discrimination, such as any type of age discrimination and not just age discrimination against individuals age 40 or older. Many states also prohibit employment discrimination based on factors not specified under federal laws, such as:
• sexual orientation, transsexualism, or gender identity;
• genetic conditions or inherited blood disorders, whether individual or familial in nature;
• marital or familial status;
• status as a victim of domestic violence or other violent crimes;
• off-duty consumption of legal products or after-work engagement in legal behaviors, such as smoking;
• appearance; or
• certain conviction records.