What is a Protected Class in Employment Law?


Cassandra Nguy

class in employment law is a group of people legally protected from harassment or illicit behavior targeted towards a shared characteristic. Protected classes receive protection from U.S. federal and state laws for any discriminatory behavior, such as race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is an independent federal agency that oversees all federal anti-discriminatory acts.

Employment laws are established to equalize the power dynamics between employers and employees. They’re meant to protect your rights, and if they’re broken, you deserve justice. Find out the protected classes under federal law and how an employment attorney can assist your legal claim.

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What are the 10 Protected Classes?

These 10 protected classes in employment law are groups that share a distinct trait that are protected from adverse action based on that trait.

The following 10 protected classes are protected by state and federal law:

  1. Age
  2. Citizenship
  3. Color
  4. Disability
  5. Genetic information
  6. National origin
  7. Race
  8. Religion
  9. Sex
  10. Veteran status

If you or a loved one is facing harassment or discrimination based on their protected class, report it to your local government or the Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA). If the discrimination violates state and federal law, the FEPA will send your complaint to the EEOC.

Protected ClassFederal Law
AgeAge Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975
CitizenshipImmigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
ColorCivil Rights Act of 1964
DisabilityRehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Genetic InformationGenetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
National OriginCivil Rights Act of 1964
RaceCivil Rights Act of 1964
ReligionCivil Rights Act of 1964
SexCivil Rights Act of 1964 and Equal Pay Act of 1963
Veteran StatusVietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

What Federal Laws Enforce Protected Classes?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) bans discrimination by enforcing federal laws to protect workers. The EEOC provides five basic rights for job applicants and employees in the United States.

The five basic rights for employment opportunities are:

  • Work free of discrimination
  • Work free of harassment
  • Complaints about job discrimination without retaliation
  • Request workplace changes for your religion, disability, pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions
  • Keeping medical information confidential

Employment laws protect employees who can accurately report and assert their legal rights. For example, reporting unsafe working conditions or reporting for wrongful termination are legally protected employee rights.

Below are laws enforced by EEOC for the following federal employment and discrimination laws.

1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discriminatory behavior against an individual based on race, color, religion, sex (pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), or national origin.

This law protects you from retaliation if you report discrimination or volunteer for employment discrimination proceedings (e.g. discrimination investigations or lawsuits).

Also, reporting suspected violations on protected classes is protected, such as resisting unwanted sexual advances or helping harassed coworkers.

2. Equal Pay Act of 1963

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) prohibits employers from paying unequal wages to workers based on sex, a protected class. This law was the first in the United States to ban sex-based wage discrimination between genders in similar workplaces.

President John F. Kennedy signed the EPA 1963 on June 10, 1963, as part of his New Frontier Program. The law is an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) and was administered and executed by the EEOC.

3. Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) is a law addressing illegal immigration in the United States. This was enacted on November 6, 1986, and enforced several provisions that include immigrant employment.

Employers must verify employees’ identity and employment eligibility using a form I-9. The act required employers to testify to their employee’s immigration status and prohibits intentional employment of unauthorized immigrants.

4. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975 (ADEA) forbids discrimination based on age in programs and activities receiving federal financial aid. This act was created to prohibit intentional discrimination against older workers ages 40 and up, also known as disparate treatment.

5. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Title I of the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA) bans discrimination against disabled individuals in multiple verticals.

Under Title I of the ADA, the EEOC prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor unions from discriminating against eligible individuals with disabilities in applying for jobs, hiring, firing, and employee training.

6. Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits discrimination against employees or job seekers due to their genetic information. This includes information about an individual’s genetic tests regarding their family members or national origin.

For instance, family medical history (e.g. disease, disorder, or medical condition) and past relations cannot be an aspect in deciding employment eligibility. Organizations cannot request, require, or purchase your genetic information to make employment decisions.

What Employment Actions Violate a Protected Class?

Some employment actions that violate a protected class under federal law include:

  • A person denied employment due to their distinct race, skin color, or sex. For example, an employer may choose a white man over a Hispanic woman due to protected classes and not merit. This is an example of race and sex discrimination, and the opposite may be true for reverse discrimination.
  • A person is treated less fairly due to age, disability, or their disorder. For instance, a 40-year-old male diagnosed with autism is harassed in the workplace due to his age and disability.
  • A person is denied a marriage license when they attempt to marry the same gender. An example would be a gay couple applying for a marriage license but refused due to their sexual orientation.
  • A person is refused service due to their religion. For instance, the owner of a restaurant disallowing Muslims to eat at their restaurant.

There are a lot of employment actions that violate protected classes. If you believe your rights have been violated, seek an employment attorney to help you fight for your rights.

What is an Immutable Characteristic in Employment Law?

An immutable characteristic in employment law is an individual’s attributes perceived as unchangeable or fundamental to one’s personal identity. For instance, gender identity and familial status are forms of immutable characteristics.

These immutable characteristics serve as the foundation for what defines a protected class in employment law. For instance, discrimination based on sexuality is illegal in employment law and other federal and state laws.

The same goes for familial status where laws ensure families with children have the right to live in housing like other residents. Also, any person pregnant or in the process of securing legal custody for a minor is protected under federal laws.

What is not a Protected Class in Federal Law?

Even though employment law recognizes certain immutable characteristics, there are still some classes not protected by law. Employers can still make job decisions based on these characteristics, so keep them in mind when talking to your attorney.

  • Political Affiliation—revolves around the First Amendment where freedom of speech and association are constitutional rights. Individuals may freely express their political ideologies. However, you are not immune to the consequences of your speech, such as adverse actions from your employer.
  • Physical Appearance—discrimination based on appearance is subjective and can vary broadly from person to person. The government cannot enforce a blanket ban on discrimination based on physical appearance. If any religious clothing is involved, then those may be protected under federal law.
  • Income level—this characteristic changes dynamically over an individual’s lifetime and is complex when defining the contributing factors. However, some anti-discrimination laws like FEHA help low-income families, so talk to an attorney if you qualify for such assistance.

Even though your employment case may involve these unprotected characteristics, your case may be more complicated than you think.

If you believe you suffered adverse actions based on your protected class, call an employment attorney to protect yourself. You may need an expert to analyze your case and determine your next steps if you qualify for compensation.

Hire an Employment Attorney if Your Protected Class was Violated

LegalASAP can help you in the process of hiring an employment attorney if your protected class is violated. We want to help you fight for your rights from adverse discriminatory acts and seek compensation for your injustice.

Fill out a free short evaluation form and see if you qualify for an employment claim. For questions and inquiries that can’t wait, you may call us at 888-927-3080 and we’ll do our best to answer any concerns you may have.

Cassandra Nguy

Cassandra Tran Nguy is a legal writer living in Los Angeles, California. She graduated cum laude from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in English Creative Writing and a minor in Marketing. Visit her online profile at linkedin.com