Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to federal employment laws

By Ann Bowden-Hollis — The Journal of South Mississippi Business

Growing businesses frequently become subject to a variety of federal employment laws because of increasing the number of employees “on the payroll.” Unfortunately, sometimes the growth occurs so quickly the business misses having crossed a threshold of coverage. In this instance, ignorance is not bliss; an employer’s lack of awareness of being subject to a federal employment law is not a defense to a violation of that law.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII) makes it unlawful to discriminate in the terms or conditions of employment on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex, including harassment on one of these bases. Coverage by Title VII applies to all employers that have at least 15 employees on the payroll for any 20 weeks during a current or the preceding calendar year. “On the payroll” means just that — the employee does not have to be full-time, part-time, or actively engaged at work. An individual who is carried on the payroll counts.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in the early 1990s, prohibits discrimination against employees and applicants based on disability. Employer coverage under the ADA also is based on the same “15 employees on the payroll” test.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which initially made law in 1967 and substantially revised in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, generally makes unlawful discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment on the basis of age, for individuals who are 40 years of age or older. The threshold number of employees is 20 for coverage of employers by the ADEA, and coverage is determined by the same “on the payroll” test.

Finally, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 generally prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information and applies to employers having 15 or more employees on the payroll.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administers all of these laws. Another threshold sometimes missed by growing businesses is reaching 100 employees on the payroll. At that point, private employers subject to Title VII are required to begin filing an annual report with the EEOC, which is commonly referred to as an “EEO-1.” The EEO-1 is a “compliance survey report” which requires certain employment (but not applicant) data divided into categories: race/ethnicity, gender and job category. The deadline for such reports is Sept. 30 of each year. Businesses filing the EEO-1 for the first time can call a toll free number, 866-286-6440, or email el.techassistance@eeoc.gov, for assistance. The form can be filed online.

For more information about any of these laws or the EEO-1 report, go to www.eeoc.gov, a user-friendly website with considerable information to inform employers, other covered entities and employees of the rights and obligations under the laws.