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EEOC seeks federal sexual orientation discrimination protection

Employees in New York have numerous legal measures in place to protect them from being mistreated on the job. However, there are legal limitations that leave certain workers vulnerable to actions like retaliation, discrimination and harassment.

Gay and lesbian employees, for instance, don't have the same protection against discrimination that other workers do in the eyes of federal law. While some states including New York have passed laws to extend protections afforded to other workers to LGBT employees, the same cannot be said at the federal level. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is taking steps to change this.

Recently, the EEOC filed two federal lawsuits against companies in light of accusations alleging harassment and discrimination against workers based on their sexual orientation. In one case, a lesbian employee was fired after complaining about the harassment she suffered from her supervisor; in the other case, a gay employee was subjected to a hostile work environment and ultimately felt it necessary to quit.

These lawsuits are significant because they aim to seek federal court approval of the EEOCs interpretation of discrimination laws. Essentially, the EEOC says that LGBT employees should have federal discrimination protection under the same federal law that prohibits discrimination based on a person's race, religion, national origin and sex.

While the law does not specifically identify sexual orientation as a protected characteristic, the EEOC argues that prohibiting harassment based on sexual orientation is covered under the prohibition of harassment based on a person's sex.

It will certainly be interesting to see if and how the federal courts will rule on these lawsuits. While it is crucial that more than 30 states and many individual companies have enacted their own rules for prohibiting mistreatment based on sexual orientation, having a law that prohibits such behavior on the federal level will be an important step in providing more uniform protections for workers.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, "EEOC files first two sexual orientation discrimination cases, including one against Baltimore workplace," Lorraine Mirabella, March 2, 2016

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