Labor and Employment

Laws Against Employment Discrimination in California

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
California employees are protected from discrimination based on certain characteristics.

Employees in California are protected from workplace discrimination based on certain traits, such as disability or sex. Congress and the California legislature have decided that these traits, called protected characteristics, are not a fair and legal basis for employment decisions—including who to hire, who to fire, and how much to pay employees.

Below, we explain your rights under the state and federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination, including which employers must comply with the laws and which employees are protected. (For more on this topic, see our employment discrimination and harassment page.)

Federal Laws Prohibiting Employment Discrimination

Federal laws—including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act—protect employees in all 50 states against discrimination based on:

  • race
  • color
  • religion
  • sex
  • pregnancy
  • national origin
  • age (applies only to employees who are 40 years of age or older)
  • genetic information, or
  • physical or mental disability.

These federal laws make it illegal for employers of a certain size to discriminate in all aspects of employment, including hiring, benefits, promotions, pay, discipline, and termination. You are protected from discrimination if you work for a private employer with at least 15 employees (or 20 employees, for age discrimination).

Government employees are protected from discrimination, too. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to all federal, state, and local government employers. For other types of discrimination, all federal government employers are covered, and state and local government employers are covered if they have at least 15 employees.

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act applies to private employers with five or more employees, the state and all of its political and civil subdivisions, and all cities. The Act outlaws discrimination based on:

  • age (40 and older only)
  • race
  • color
  • national origin or ethnicity
  • disability
  • genetic information
  • medical condition
  • gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions)
  • religion
  • marital status
  • sexual orientation
  • gender identity and gender expression, and
  • military or veteran status.

Separate laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their political activities or affiliations. In addition, employers may not discriminate against employees because they are victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault.

Agencies That Enforce Discrimination Laws

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the government agency that enforces federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. The EEOC website provides details on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the primary federal law that prohibits employment discrimination, as well as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other federal laws. See Laws Enforced by EEOC for details. See our article on how to file an EEOC claim or visit the EEOC’s website for more information.

In California, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) enforces the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Learn more about the Fair Employment and Housing Act, including how to file a complaint, at the DFEH’s website.

Finding an Employment Law Attorney in California

If you believe you have been discriminated against at work, you should talk to an experienced California employment lawyer. A lawyer can assess your situation, explain the laws that might apply, and evaluate the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also advise you on how to proceed, including filing a complaint or lawsuit, and what damages might be available if you win.

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