Many employees come to my office to consult with me about sexual harassment or discrimination based upon race, pregnancy, gender or age. On some occasions, the employee may still be employed by the employer. In those instances I always encourage them to file complaints or reports with human resources to allow the employer to use its internal procedures to address the problem. In the event that the employer does not address the issues, I will than encourage the employee to file a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC.
What is the EEOC?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
Who Does the EEOC Protect?
Most employers with at least 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws (20 employees in age discrimination cases). Most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered.
The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.
Filing a Charge
An EEOC Charge can either be filed with the assistance and representation of counsel or by the employee on their own. If you do it on your own, the EEOC will give you the forms and guidance on how to prepare the Charge of Discrimination. Once a complaint is made to HR or the EEOC, the employer is not legally allowed to retaliate or discriminate against you for making these complaints. However, that does not always mean the employer will follow the rules so you should keep careful notes and documentation of all complaints made, to whom you made them, and any actions taken against you as a result of these complaints.
The EEOC has a link on its website that you can use to do an online assessment of whether or not you should bring a charge with the EEOC: EEOC claim assessment.
It is important to know however that if you choose to file an EEOC Charge, you must do so within 180 days or 300 days of the claimed discrimination or harassment, so don't wait too long to take this action. You get 300 days if your state has a an agency similar to the EEOC such as in Florida, there is the Florida Commission on Human Relations ("FCHR"). You can fill out a charge in person at one of the EEOC offices or do it by mail.
Once the EEOC Charge is filed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, has a staff of investigators who investigate your complaints. The employer is supposed to receive a copy of your Charge within ten days. They allow the employer an opportunity to file a formal response and generally will then ask for a reply from the employee. Sometimes, they will seek to interview the employee in person or over the telephone to get more information for their investigation. Sometimes the investigators will seek documents from the employer. Sometimes the EEOC will offer the parties to mediate the claims prior to further investigations. Keep in mind that if you choose to file an EEOC charge on your own, without an attorney, you will not have the support and guidance of an attorney to help you through this process.
Once the EEOC completes its investigation, they will issue either a "cause determination" finding that they believed discrimination took place or will issues a "Notice of Suit Rights" which states that although they don't believe discrimination took place, you can file a legal action against the employer if you choose to do so. If the EEOC issues a "cause" determination, they can choose to file a lawsuit on your behalf, but are not required to do so.
Upon receipt of your Notice from the EEOC, if you are going to file a lawsuit, you must do so quickly since any Federal claims under the ADA, Title VII, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, etc must be filed within 90 days. In Florida and other states, there are also state statutes which provide you a longer time to file suit.