Labor and Employment

What Kinds of Workplace Discrimination Are Illegal?

By Sachi Barreiro, Attorney, University of San Francisco School of Law

Not all unfair treatment in the workplace is illegal. Only discrimination based on certain characteristics, protected by federal or state law, will give rise to a discrimination claim. Protected characteristics under federal law include:

Several states protect additional characteristics or activities, such as:

  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity
  • age (employees 18 and older)
  • marital status
  • familial status (having a child)
  • military or veteran status
  • political activities or affiliation
  • status as a victim of domestic violence
  • history of criminal arrest or conviction
  • lawful medical marijuana use, and
  • other lawful off-duty activities.

Many of these laws apply only to employers of a certain size, however. For example, most federal employment discrimination laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. (Age discrimination is illegal for employers with 20 or more employees.)

State discrimination laws often cover smaller employers though. For example, anti-discrimination laws apply to all employers in Massachusetts and New Jersey and employers with five or more employees in California and Virginia. (To learn your state’s rules, see our employment discrimination and harassment page.

Go to the main employment discrimination FAQ for employees page.

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