Year-end lawsuit settlements by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) send a clear message to organizations that workplace discrimination and harassment prevention should remain a priority in 2021, whether employees are onsite, working remotely or a hybrid combination.
Here are a few of the EEOC’s settlements announced in December:
Sex Discrimination – $5 million
A distributor of food products agreed to pay more than $5 million and hire a vice president of diversity to settle a class action lawsuit alleging the company failed to hire women as drivers and for other positions. The EEOC also charged that a qualified female employee was denied a promotion to nighttime warehouse training supervisor based on her sex.
Takeaway: In announcing the settlement, the EEOC said, “Women continue to be excluded from traditionally male-dominated industries and occupations based upon misconceived and outdated notions about their abilities. The EEOC will pursue class-wide litigation to eliminate discriminatory barriers that women face in the workplace – especially in the hiring process.”
National Origin and Retaliation – $1.6 million
A security services contractor will pay $1.6 million to resolve a national origin and retaliation discrimination lawsuit that claimed the firm engaged in a pattern of discrimination against foreign-born Africans based on their national origin and retaliated against employees for complaining. According to the lawsuit, a project manager who oversaw approximately 400 security personnel, about half of whom were foreign-born Africans, mocked their accents and said he would fire them to reduce their number.
The contractor also denied leave to African employees, forced them to work on their days off, subjected them to heightened scrutiny, suspension, threats of termination, fabricated charges of misconduct and fired them without cause.
Takeaway: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees or applicants against discrimination and harassment based on their national origin. In announcing the large settlement, the EEOC said that combating systemic harassment in the workplace remains a priority and that, “Employees are entitled to work in an environment free of offensive or derogatory remarks about their birthplace, ethnicity, culture, language or foreign accent.”
Sexual Harassment and Retaliation – $193,750
Companies operating a motorcycle dealership agreed to pay a former female employee $193,750 to settle a case charging that managers and coworkers subjected her to constant sexual harassment and then retaliated against her after she complained. The harassment included frequent propositions for sex, continuous comments about her body and sharing unwanted and graphic sexual images and videos. The employee also alleged that after complaining, her schedule was changed so it interfered with childcare and then she was fired for fabricated reasons.
Takeaway: “No one should be subjected to the kind of harassment this woman faced,” the EEOC said, “and no one should be terminated for having the courage to report it.” Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, which violates Title VII. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that directly or indirectly interferes with an individual’s work, creates a hostile work environment or is made a term or condition of employment.
Age Discrimination – $700,000
A technology consulting company will pay $700,000 to resolve an age discrimination suit claiming the company targeted employees who were 40 or older in a series of layoffs. Age bias and discrimination violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects employees 40 and over and prohibits a company from laying off older workers because of their age.
Takeaway: Besides paying $700,000 in lost wages and damages to the former employees, the company must revise layoff procedures to comply with federal laws protecting older workers, and the CEO must issue a statement that age discrimination will not be tolerated.
Pregnancy Discrimination – $162,500
A medical transportation company agreed to pay $162,500 and provide other relief to settle a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit. According to the EEOC, a paramedic requested light duty for the last part of her pregnancy and supplied a doctor’s note. The company denied her request, and rather than give her light duty tasks available to employees injured on the job, she was told to take unpaid leave or work without any restrictions.
Takeaway: Refusing to provide light duty to a pregnant employee while accommodating other employees violates Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In addition to the $162,500 settlement, the company must provide anti-discrimination training to supervisors, safety and human resources personnel and employees.
Protecting employees from workplace discrimination and harassment is the responsibility of organizations and the mission of the EEOC. Creating and enforcing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, implementing reporting procedures, promptly investigating complaints and conducting ongoing training are among the measures that employers can take to prevent workplace discrimination and harassment and foster a culture of respect, diversity and inclusion.
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