By Amanda Ernst - Portfolio Media, New York
Discrimination charges brought against private employers by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed an increase last year for the first time since 2002, according to data released by the EEOC Thursday.
The EEOC said it filed 75,768 individual charge filings in 2006, up from 75,428 a year before. Additionally, almost all categories of filings saw an increase last year, except for age and equal pay charges. Race, sex and retaliation charges were the most frequent allegations last year.
The data also included a total tally of sexual harassment charges and pregnancy discrimination charges filed with the EEOC and state and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies across the country.
This data revealed that sexual harassment charges decreased in 2006, down to 12,025 from 12,679 the year before. However, 15.4% of those charges were filed by men, compared to 14.3% in 2005.
These figures tell us that discrimination remains a persistent problem in the 21st century workplace," said EEOC Chair Naomi C. Earp in a statement. The Commission continues to work closely with our stakeholders to implement new strategies to stop discrimination before it starts. We are striking a vital balance between outreach and education on one hand, and enforcement and litigation on the other.
Whats more, those statistics revealed that charges falling under the heading of pregnancy discrimination were up to 4,901 in 2006, a record number.
Im not surprised to see the increase in pregnancy charges, Michele Whitham, co-managing partner of Foley Hoag LLP said.
Whitham explained that she has seen an increase in cases that have come up recently relating to the changing role of parents in society. She said employers her firm represents come to her with questions about how much leave to give parents, whether illness leave can be combined with pregnancy leave, and how long to hold a job for a woman who has just had a baby.
But some experts were surprised by what the EEOCs numbers didnt show. Peter Donati, the leader of Levenfeld Pearlstein LLCs Employment Service Group, said he was surprised that the age discrimination charges were down in 2006. In fact, there was a significant drop to 13,569 charges in that category down from 16,585 in 2005.
Donati said the aging population would suggest that these sorts of claims would be increasing, not decreasing in recent years. However, Donati did point out some possible reasons for the disparity.
The economy has been pretty good, and there hasnt been too much massive downsizing or layoffs, so employers are probably not terminating older employees or older employees are finding employment after losing one job, Donati said.
Donati also pointed out that the EEOCs numbers dont, for the most part, include charges filed at the state level.
But the EEOC still saw an overall increase in charges filed. This could be attributed to the Commissions recently enacted systemic litigation enforcement program, according to Gerald Maatman, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP.
Maatman said the EEOC now investigates single charges filed by employees to see if they affect a group of employees. For example, if one African American files a race discrimination charge, the EEOC will investigate the treatment of similarly situated African-American employees at that company.
This, said Maatman, could lead to an increase in charges filed. If this is in fact the reason for the recent increase, then charges should continue to go up in years to come.
Whitham said she expects race, national origin and religion cases to perhaps grow in years in to come, in part due to the changing nature of U.S. society.
Employers are asking me if they can fire employees if they dont speak enough English to be able to do their jobs, she said.
Donati agreed. He pointed to the fact that the EEOCs numbers have shown a slight increase in religion cases every year since 2003, although the number of religion charges is still a small percentage of overall charges.
There does seem to be a lot more issues involving religious discrimination recently, especially accommodating different religions, he said.
Beyond that, Donati said, the increase in the total number of charges filed by the EEOC in 2006 doesnt seem to be too important. I dont view that as a statistically significant increase, he said.
Donati pointed out that the number of suits the EEOC filed in 2006 actually decreased from the year before. The EEOC filed 407 suits last year, 371 of which were merit suits. There is only so much litigation the EEOC can handle, Donati said.
The amount of employment related claims before the EEOC seems that they have stayed about constant over the years.
In 2006, the Commission made visible progress in advancing equal employment opportunity, yet much work remains, EEOC Chair Earp said in a statement. Our challenge in 2007 is to make the most effective and efficient use of agency resources to foster fair and inclusive work environments for all individuals.