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Criminal Background Checks and Employment: A Guide for Equal Opportunity Professionals

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Over the past year, four major federal agencies issued significant guidance related to the use of criminal background checks in delivering employment-related services by state and local governments as well as in employment practices of private sector employers. The highlights are:

√ Don’t use arrest and/or conviction records in your decision-making.

√ If you feel you must conduct a criminal background check, then:

● Do it after you’ve determined the person meets either: (1) the essential eligibility requirements for selection and/or referral to a job or training program; or (2) the bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) for the position at issue.
● Give notice to the individual that you need to conduct a criminal background check, and get the individual’s permission to do so.
● Give the individual the results of the criminal background check, and afford the individual an opportunity to explain or dispute the contents.
● Before taking an adverse action based on an individual’s arrest and/or conviction record, make sure your inquiry is “narrowly tailored to identify criminal conduct with a demonstrably tight nexus” to the position or training in question. And, you must demonstrate that you’ve considered the following factors: (1) the date of the criminal conviction (newer versus older); (2) what specific offenses demonstrate unfitness for performing a specific job or undergoing specific training; and (3) the essential requirements for the job or training, and the actual circumstances (at a home, outdoors, at a warehouse, at an office) under which the job or training will be performed.

√ Document everything you do. If your decision is challenged by a federal agency, you’ll need to demonstrate that you did not violate federal civil rights laws.

√ Keep the individual’s criminal background information confidential. Only use this information for the purpose for which it is intended.

I. Background

The federal guidance discussed in this paper stems from commonly-recited disparities in the arrest and conviction records of minorities as compared to non-minorities and how, as a result, these disparities result in disparate treatment of ex-offenders in the employment arena. The following is an example of the background cited in these documents:

In recent decades, the number of Americans who have had contact with the criminal justice system has increased exponentially. It is estimated that about one in three adults now has a criminal history record – which often consists of an arrest that did not lead to a conviction, a conviction for which the person was not sentenced to a term of incarceration, or a conviction for a non-violent crime. On any given day, about 2.3 million people are incarcerated and each year 700,000 people are released from prison and almost 13 million are admitted to – and released from – local jails.

Racial and ethnic disparities are reflected in incarceration rates. According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 106 white men, one in 36 Hispanic men, and one in 15 African American men are incarcerated. Additionally, on average, one in 31 adults is under correctional control (i.e. probation, parole, or incarceration), including one in 45 white adults, one in 27 Hispanic adults and one in 11 African American adults. Racial and ethnic disparities may also be reflected in other criminal history records. For example, although African Americans constitute approximately 13 percent of the overall population, they account for 28 percent of those arrested and almost 40 percent of the incarcerated population.

Title VI (addressing federally-assisted programs and activities) and Title VII (addressing employment practices) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination based on race, color, and national origin. These titles prohibit both “disparate treatment” (treating members of protected groups differently based on their protected status), and “disparate impact” (the use of policies or practices that are neutral on their face, but have a disproportionate impact on members of protected groups, and are not job-related and consistent with business necessity).

The guidance documents issued by EEOC, ETA, OFCCP, and CRC make clear that individuals with criminal history records are not a protected group under the applicable civil rights laws, but these laws may be implicated with criminal records are being considered. For example, it constitutes illegal discrimination to treat whites with a criminal record more favorably than similarly-situated African Americans with the same or similar criminal record. This constitutes “disparate treatment.” And, as another examples, job announcements that categorically exclude people who have any kind of conviction or arrest, or which specify that only those individuals with “clean” criminal records need apply, will likely constitute illegal “disparate impact” because of the above-referenced racial and ethnic disparities reflected in the criminal justice system.

II. Citations and scope of applicability

As can be seen below, the guidance documents have wide-reaching implications in the area of employment services and employment practices:

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

    Guidance reference:

EEOC Enforcement Guidance, Number 915.002 (Apr. 25, 2012)

    Applies to:

All private sector employers with 15 or more employees

U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP)

    Guidance reference:

OFCCP Directive No. 306 (Jan. 29, 2013)

    Applies to:

Federal contractors and subcontractors and federally-assisted construction contractors and subcontractors

U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) and Civil Rights Center (CRC)

    Guidance reference:

Training and Employment Guidance Letter (TEGL) No. 31-11 (May 25, 2012)

    Applies to:

Public workforce system and other entities that receive federal financial assistance to operate Job Banks, to provide assistance to job seekers in locating and obtaining employment, and to assist employers by screening and referring qualified applicants for employment and/or training (includes programs and activities covered by the Workforce Investment Act and the Wagner-Peyser Act)

III. Policies of the agencies

    EEOC

The Commission, which has enforced Title VII since it became effective in 1965, has well-established guidance applying Title VII principles to employers’ use of criminal records to screen for employment. This Enforcement Guidance builds on longstanding court decisions and policy documents that were issued over twenty years ago. In light of employers’ increased access to criminal history information, case law analyzing Title VII requirements for criminal record exclusions, and other developments, the Commission has decided to update and consolidate in this document all of its prior policy statements about Title VII and the use of criminal records in employment decisions.

The Commission intends this document for use by employers considering the use of criminal records in their selection and retention processes; by individuals who suspect that they have been denied jobs or promotions, or have been discharged because of their criminal records; and by EEOC staff who are investigating discrimination charges involving the use of criminal records in employment decisions.

National data supports a finding that criminal record exclusions have a disparate impact on race and national origin. The national data provides a basis for the Commission to further investigate such Title VII disparate treatment charges. During an EEOC investigation, the employer also has an opportunity to show, with relevant evidence, that its employment policy or practice does not cause a disparate impact on the protected group(s).

The issue is whether the policy or practice deprives a disproportionate number of Title VII-protected individuals of employment opportunities. The Commission with closely consider whether an employer has a reputation in the community for excluding individuals with criminal records. In light of these racial and ethnic disparities, contractors should be mindful of federal antidiscrimination laws if they choose to rely on job applicants’ criminal history records for purposes of employment decisions. Hiring policies and practices that exclude workers with criminal records may run afoul of such laws, which prohibit intentional discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, or other protected bases, and policies or practices that have a disparate treatment on these protected groups and cannot be justified as job related and consistent with business necessity. Policies that exclude people from employment based on the mere existence of a criminal history record and that do not take into account the age and nature of the offense, for example, are likely to unjustifiably restrict the employment opportunities of individuals with conviction histories. Due to racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, such policies are likely to violate federal antidiscrimination law. Accordingly, contractors should carefully consider their legal obligations before adopting such policies.

This guidance consolidates and updates EEOC’s prior guidance regarding the use of criminal records in employment decisions. EEOC is the lead agency for interpreting Title VII, and OFFCP follows Title VII principles in interpreting Executive Order 11246, as amended. Therefore, EEOC’s guidance will assist contractors in implementing and reviewing their employment practices in compliance with the Executive Order. EEOC’s guidance applies to all employers that have 15 or more employees.

    OFCCP

In light of these racial and ethnic disparities, contractors should be mindful of federal antidiscrimination laws if they choose to rely on job applicants’ criminal history records for purposes of employment decisions. Hiring policies and practices that exclude workers with criminal records may run afoul of such laws, which prohibit intentional discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, or other protected bases, and policies or practices that have a disparate treatment on these protected groups and cannot be justified as job related and consistent with business necessity. Policies that exclude people from employment based on the mere existence of a criminal history record and that do not take into account the age and nature of the offense, for example, are likely to unjustifiably restrict the employment opportunities of individuals with conviction histories. Due to racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, such policies are likely to violate federal antidiscrimination law. Accordingly, contractors should carefully consider their legal obligations before adopting such policies.

This guidance consolidates and updates EEOC’s prior guidance regarding the use of criminal records in employment decisions. EEOC is the lead agency for interpreting Title VII, and OFFCP follows Title VII principles in interpreting Executive Order 11246, as amended. Therefore, EEOC’s guidance will assist contractors in implementing and reviewing their employment practices in compliance with the Executive Order. EEOC’s guidance applies to all employers that have 15 or more employees.

The guidance cites to the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance to assist in determining the proper consideration of criminal records.

    ETA and CRC

As recognized by the federally-assisted workforce system, which is already engaged in promoting job opportunities for people with criminal records through various reentry grants and programs, obtaining employment is critical in reducing recidivism and easing the reintegration of persons returning from incarceration. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis recently observed that the public workforce system’s mix of strategies, interventions and service partnerships must be designed and executed with the goal of helping people with criminal records obtain employment that can support them and their families. These efforts are consistent with the Federal Interagency Reentry Council’s mission to make communities safer by reducing recidivism, assist those returning from prison and jail in becoming productive citizens, and save taxpayer dollars by lowering the direct and collateral costs of incarceration. As Secretary Solis stated recently: “When someone serves time in our penal system, they shouldn’t face a lifetime sentence of unemployment when they are released. Those who want to make amends must be given the opportunity to make an honest living.”

This TEGL is intended to help covered entities (and their employer customers) comply with their nondiscrimination obligations when serving the population of individuals with criminal records, and to ensure that exclusionary policies are not at cross-purposes with the public workforce system’s efforts to promote employment opportunities for such workers. This TEGL applies to all jobs available through a covered entity’s job bank without regard to whether the job is in the government or the private sector, including federal contractors and subcontractors.

This guidance cites to the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance to assist in determining the proper consideration of criminal records.

IV. “Illegal” practices

Each of the guidance papers sets forth practices that may constitute illegal discrimination in violation of applicable civil rights laws. These practices are set forth as follows:

    EEOC

● Evidence supporting discrimination. The EEOC cites to several kinds of evidence that may be used to demonstrate discrimination in violation of Title VII: (1) biased statements, such as derogatory statements by the employer or decision-maker towards a protected group, or that express group-related stereotypes about criminality; (2) inconsistent hiring practices, such as requesting criminal history information more often for individuals with certain racial or ethnic backgrounds, or giving white individuals but not racial minorities the opportunity to explain their criminal history; (3) different treatment of similarly-situated individuals, such as a racial or ethnic minority being subjected to more or different background checks or to different standards for evaluating criminal history; and (4) statistical evidence derived from the employer’s applicant data, workforce data, and/or third party criminal background history data.

● No job-relatedness, illegal. If criminal background records are utilized in employment decisions, the employer should be prepared to demonstrate that this policy or practice is “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.”

● Arrest records. The fact of an arrest does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred. Arrests are not proof of criminal conduct. Many arrests do not result in criminal charges, or the charges are dismissed. An exclusion based on an arrest, in itself, is not job related and consistent with business necessity. The Commission further notes arrest records also may include inaccuracies or may continue to be reported even if expunged or sealed. The Commission mandates that an arrest record cannot be grounds for exclusion, but an employer may, under certain circumstances, inquire into the conduct underlying the arrest.

● Conviction records. Unlike an arrest record, a conviction usually is sufficient evidence that a person engaged in certain conduct. However, it is important to keep in mind that (1) there may be error in the record, or (2) the record may be outdated. Thus, a policy or practice requiring an automatic, across-the-board exclusion from all employment opportunities because of any criminal conduct is not tailored to a particular job, or consistent with business necessity.

    OFCCP

● Blanket exclusions are illegal. OFCCP is aware of job announcements that categorically exclude people who have any kind of conviction or arrest and of contractors that screen out job seekers with criminal records by stating that they will only accept applicants with so-called “clean” criminal records. Due to racial and ethnic disparities reflected in the criminal justice system, these policies or practices will likely have a disparate impact on certain protected groups, in violation of federal law.

● Failure to consider circumstances. Policies that exclude people from employment based on the mere existence of a criminal history record and that do not take into account the age and nature of an offense, for example, are likely to unjustifiably restrict the employment opportunities of individuals with conviction histories. Due to racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, such policies are likely to violate federal antidiscrimination law. Accordingly, contractors should carefully consider their legal obligations before adopting such policies.

● Adopting EEOC guidance. OFCCP further cites to EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance and the ETA/CRC TEGL document for further examples of discrimination in violation of federal civil rights laws.

    ETA and CRC

● Printing and publishing. Cannot “print or publish or cause to be printed” any job announcement that discriminates based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin unless there is a bona fide occupational qualification for a preference based on religion, sex, or national origin.

● Use of discriminatory criteria prohibited. Use of any “criteria or methods of administration which have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination because of race, color, or national origin” is illegal.

● Nondiscriminatory selection and referral. “Selection and referral of individuals for job openings or training opportunities and all other activities performed by or through employment service offices” must be done without regard to race, color, or national origin. Conduct to the contrary violates civil rights laws.

● Posting job announcements in Job Banks. Employers must be placed on notice that federal civil rights laws “generally prohibit categorical exclusions of individuals based solely on an arrest or conviction history.” To this end, the TEGL requires that “Notice #1 for Employers Regarding Job Bank Nondiscrimination and Criminal Record Exclusions” be given to employers that register to use a Job Bank. Failure to place the employer on notice constitutes noncompliance by the Job Bank.

● WIA and Wagner-Peysner. The guidance notes the Workforce Investment Act at 29 U.S.C. § 2938 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at 42 U.S.C. § 2000d require nondiscrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance, including non-discrimination in employment practices and in selection and referral for employment or training. The Wagner-Peyser Act at 20 C.F.R. § 652.8 similarly requires nondiscrimination and states must assure that discriminatory job orders will not be accepted except where there is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Failure to consider the BFOQ of a position is illegal.

V. “Best practices”

Each guidance paper also sets forth certain “best” practices. These practices are similar among the agencies as follows:

    EEOC

● Don’t ask. The Commission recommends that employers not ask about convictions on the job applications and that, if and when they make such inquiries, the inquiries be limited to convictions for which exclusion is related to the position in question and consistent with business necessity.

● How to demonstrate business necessity. The Commission finds there are two ways in which criminal conduct exclusion will be job-related and consistent with business necessity: (1) the employer validates the criminal conduct screen for the position in question per the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (Uniform Guidelines) standards (if data about criminal conduct as related to subsequent work performance is available and such validation is possible); or (2) the employer develops a targeted screen considering at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job, and then provides an opportunity for an individualized assessment for people excluded by the screen to determine whether the policy as applied is job related and consistent with business necessity.

The Commission states that the “individualized assessment” component consists of the following: (1) notice to the individual screened out because of a criminal conviction; (2) an opportunity for the individual to demonstrate the exclusion should not be applied under the particular circumstances, and (3) consideration by the employer as to whether the additional information provided by the individual warrants an exception to the exclusion and shows that the policy as applied is not job related and consistent with business necessity.

● Narrowly tailored. If an employer employs a criminal record screen, it must be “narrowly tailored to identify criminal conduct with a demonstrably tight nexus to the position in question.” The employer must identify essential job requirements and the actual circumstances under which the jobs are performed. Moreover, the employer must determine the specific offenses that may demonstrate unfitness for performing such jobs. And, the employer must determine the duration of exclusions for criminal conduct (older versus newer convictions). Finally, the employer should keep a record of consultations, research, and justifications considered in developing the policies and procedures. Managers, hiring officials, and decision-makers should be trained regarding how to properly implement the policies.

● Factors for consideration. Absent validation meeting the Uniform Guidelines’ standards, the employer must consider the following factors: (1) the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; (2) the time that has passed since the offense, conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and (3) the nature of the job held or sought (identifying the job title, essential functions of the job, circumstances under which the job is performed, such as level of supervision and oversight, and the environment in which the job duties are performed, such as a warehouse, private home, outdoors.

● Training is important. Train managers, hiring officials, and decision-makers about Title VII and its prohibition on employment discrimination.

● Confidentiality is important. Keep information about applicants’ and employees’ criminal records confidential. Only use it for the purpose for which it was intended.

    OFCCP

● OFCCP cites to EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance, and the ETA/CRC TEGL for examples of “best practices.” This includes providing Notices 1-3 to job seekers and/or employers, as described in the ETA/CRC’s TEGL document.

    ETA and CRC

● Seeking a background check. If an employer seeks to conduct a criminal background check based on a bona fide requirement for the job, it must: (1) obtain the applicant’s permission before asking a background screening company for a criminal history report; (2) provide the applicant a copy of the report; and (3) provide the applicant a summary of his or her rights before taking any adverse action.

● Restrictive vacancy announce-ments. Covered entities should use a system (automated or otherwise) to identify vacancy announcements that include hiring restrictions based on arrest and/or conviction records. For each such vacancy announcement located, and to ensure the employer’s and covered entity’s compliance with federal civil rights laws, the employer must be given the opportunity to remove or otherwise edit the vacancy announcement. Here, the TEGL directs that “Notice #2 for Employers Regarding Job Postings Containing Criminal Record Exclusions” be provided to the employer.

If the employer continues to keep the hiring restriction in the announcement, the announcement must include a notice that the exclusions in the posting may have an adverse impact on protected groups, and individuals with criminal history records are not prohibited from applying for the posted position (referred to as “Notice #3 For Job Seekers to be Attached to Job Postings With Criminal Record Exclusions” in the TEGL document).

● Screening and referral based on criminal record restrictions. Criminal record histories may be taken into account for purposes of referring an individual to employment-related services or programs designed to aid individuals with arrest or conviction histories. However, covered entity staff should refrain from screening and refusing to refer applicants with criminal history records. Here, the guidance suggests, if an applicant’s arrest and conviction history is taken into account for purposes of excluding the individual from training programs or other employment-related services, then the EEOC’s arrest and conviction guidance should be followed.

● Confidentiality is important. Same as the EEOC.

About the author.

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Partner of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations. To that end, she offers one hour Webinars, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. Ms. Foster also offers highly-popular procedures-writing services, such as assisting you in developing discrimination complaint procedures, procedures for serving limited English proficient individuals, procedures for serving persons with disabilities, and procedures for gathering, handling, and storing medical information to name a few. The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally-assisted programs and activities. Her book, Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination, has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource. Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors. You may contact her through www.titleviconsulting.com.

Investigating Pregnancy-Related Discrimination Complaints by Seena Foster

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

This is an informational paper to assist equal opportunity professionals, and human resource professionals, better understand the differences in disability-based and gender-based discrimination complaints. Given the length of the paper, you may find it useful to download and save in your resource library.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

An overview

I. Federal laws and pregnancy

A. Disability-related laws

1. In federally-assisted programs and in the workplace

2. Additional considerations in the workplace: The FMLA and an employer’s leave policies

B. Gender-related laws

1. In federally-assisted programs

2. In the workplace

II. When to apply disability laws

A. In federally-assisted programs

B. In the workplace

III. When to apply gender laws

A. In federally-assisted programs

B. In the workplace

IV. About Seena Foster

________________________________________________________________

An overview

As the HR/EEO professional for your organization, you receive a complaint from an employee alleging that she was denied access to a workplace training program because she took sick leave, and requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), for pregnancy-related complications. Or, she was denied access to the training program because her supervisor overheard her say she wanted to “start a family soon.”

Or, you serve as the EO professional for an organization operating federally-assisted programs and activities, and a woman files a discrimination complaint alleging that her application to enroll in an educational program was wrongfully denied because she has medical complications from her pregnancy. Or, she alleges her enrollment application was denied because she’s been pregnant twice over the past three years.

How do you investigate these complaints? Depending on the circumstances giving rise to the adverse action at issue, you’ll investigate the complaint as either a disability-based discrimination complaint, or as a gender-based complaint. How you decide this will, in turn, dictate the information you gather and the remedies (if any) you offer.

This paper is designed to help you understand how to identify the type of complaint you have, and what information you’ll need to gather during the investigation.

I. Federal laws and pregnancy

A. Disability-related rights laws

1. In federally-assisted programs and in the workplace

When we talk about disability-related civil rights laws, we are referring to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). Importantly, these laws apply both to workplace discrimination complaints as well as to discrimination complaints arising in federally-assisted programs and activities.

Generally speaking, under these laws, “disability” is defined as a mental or physical condition that “substantially limits” one or more major life activities. Disabilities that are both (1) minor, and (2) transient or temporary (such as having a cold), do not meet the definition of “disability” for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act, ADA, and ADAAA.

2. Additional considerations in the workplace: The FMLA and an employer’s leave policies

In addition to the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to the workplace. Often, this law is mistakenly thought of as a civil rights law. The FMLA is not a civil rights law, but it was enacted in response to civil rights concerns in the workplace.

Generally speaking, the FMLA provides that, for certain family or medical reasons, an employee of at least one years’ duration may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12 month period. These reasons include birth and care of a newborn child, absence due to pregnancy complications, adopting a child or becoming a foster care parent, caring for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or taking medical leave due to the employee’s inability to work because of a serious health condition.

As noted by the United States Supreme Court in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland (Mar. 20, 2012):

In enacting the FMLA, Congress relied on evidence of a well-documented pattern of sex-based discrimination in family-leave policies that granted longer periods of leave to women than to men.

Therefore, the FMLA is designed to provide a consistent set of unpaid leave policies to be applied to employees across the board, regardless of gender.

And, the Equal Economic Opportunities Commission offers the following guidance:

An employer may not single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee’s ability to work. However, if an employer requires its employees to submit a doctor’s statement concerning their ability to work before granting leave or paying sick benefits, the employer may require employees affected by pregnancy-related conditions to submit such statements.

Further, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, a new parent (including foster and adoptive parents) may be eligible for 12 weeks of leave (unpaid or paid if the employee has earned or accrued it) that may be used for care of the new child. To be eligible, the employee must have worked for the employer for 12 months prior to taking the leave and the employer must have a specified number of employees.

Turning to your organization’s leave policies and procedures, it is important to understand these policies are in place for a reason.

As we see from the history behind Congress’ enactments of the FMLA and the PDA, employers must establish leave policies and procedures (sick, annual, FMLA, and so on) that apply to employees across the board, and managers and supervisors must be consistent in their application of these policies and procedures. So, while these policies are not civil rights laws, deviation from established policies and procedures, or discriminatory policies and procedures established by the employer, renders an organization vulnerable to civil rights discrimination complaints on any covered basis (race, color, national origin, gender, religion, disability, age).

B. Gender-related laws

Sometimes, a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint does not involve disabling physical complications or medical restrictions related to the pregnancy. These complaints would be investigated as gender-based discrimination complaints. Why?

The answer is only women are capable of pregnancy and childbirth. So, let’s take a look at the gender-based civil rights laws that may apply to the complaint filed with you.

1. In federally-assisted programs and activities

There are a number of federal laws that prohibit gender-based discrimination in the delivery of federally-assisted aid, training, benefits, and services. As an example, Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in federally-assisted operations, such as job referral activities at our Nation’s job banks, delivery of unemployment insurance benefits, and selection of individuals for training, apprenticeship, and certification programs.

As another example, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (Title IX) prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational programs and activities, regardless of which federal agency provides the funding. And, the U.S. Department of Education (Education) provides excellent guidance for handling pregnancy-related discrimination issues under Title IX. Notably, unless a complaint alleges discrimination based on disabling medical or physical complications, a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint is a complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of gender. Education’s guidance states the following:

[T]he Title IX regulation at 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(a) prohibits recipients from applying ‘any rule concerning a student’s actual or potential parental, family or marital status which treats students differently on the basis of sex.’ The regulation also states, in part, the following:

A recipient shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom, unless the student requests voluntarily to participate in a separate portion of the program or activity of the recipient. 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(l).
In addition, the Title IX regulation states that, in providing financial assistance to any of its students, a recipient shall not ‘apply any rule or assist in application of any rule concerning eligibility for such assistance which treats persons of one sex differently from persons of the other sex with regard to marital or parental status.’ (See 34 C.F.R. § 106.37(a)(3)).

This differs from Education’s disability-related guidance:

Although pregnant students may be required to obtain a physician’s certification of fitness to continue in the regular education program or activity, a recipient may do so only if it requires such a certification from all students for other physical or emotional conditions requiring the attention of a physician. (See 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(2)). In fact, the Title IX regulation instructs recipients to treat pregnancy or childbirth in the same manner and under the same policies as any temporary disability. (See 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(4)).

This is consistent with how pregnancy-related complaints should be approached in other federally-assisted programs and activities. So, unless the complaint alleges discrimination based on disabling medical complications or restrictions, the pregnancy-related complaint is investigated as alleged gender-based discrimination.

2. In the workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits gender-based discrimination. However, confusion arose regarding how to process pregnancy-related complaints. As a result, Congress sought to clarify that pregnancy-related discrimination complaints in the workplace generally are investigated as alleging discrimination on the basis of gender. To that end, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include pregnancy-related complaints under the penumbra of gender-based discrimination.

As noted by the United States Supreme Court in California Federal Savings and Loan Assoc. v. Guerra, 479 U.S. 272, 107 S. Ct. 683, 692 (1987), leading up to enactment of the PDA, “Congress had before it extensive evidence of discrimination against pregnancy,” particularly in the administration of leave policies and procedures by employers. To see the text of the PDA, to go 42 U.S.C. § 2000e.

II. When to apply disability laws

A. In federally-assisted programs and activities

Jane seeks to participate in an on-the-job training program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. The program begins in 30 days and requires that participants be able to bend, lift, and stand for most of an eight hour day, five days a week. Jane wants to participate in the program, but provides medical documentation from her physician stating, for the next three months, she will be unable to stand for more than ten minutes, and will be unable to bend or lift anything at all. Her application to participate in the program is denied because her pregnancy-related complications prevent her from being able to start the program in 30 days. She files a complaint with you.

You will process Jane’s complaint as a disability-based discrimination complaint. Here, Jane is unable to bend or lift anything for the next three months, and can stand for only ten minutes at a time, due to her pregnancy. She has a “disability” in that her condition “substantially limits” the major life activities of bending, lifting, and standing. To that end, you will determine whether Jane meets the essential eligibility requirements to participate in the program, and whether any accommodations may be offered to Jane to allow her to participate. With regard to accommodations, you would look at the accommodations available for similarly-situated program applicants with temporary disabilities (such as a broken foot, or temporary back condition). The questions you will ask during your investigation would include:

● What are the essential eligibility requirements for participation in the program?

● Assuming, for purposes of this exercise, you find that the essential eligibility requirements include starting the program in 30 days and being able to lift, bend, and stand, you’ll need to ask, “Was Jane treated differently than anyone else (man or woman) with similar temporary limitations, such as a broken leg or the flu, seeking to participate in the training program?”

For questions in a particular complaint involving allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, you should check with your EO leadership, or with the civil rights office of your federal funding agency for guidance.

    Tell-tale signs.

So, when reviewing a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint under disability-based nondiscrimination laws, ask yourself: Does this complaint allege denial of a federally-assisted service, aid, benefit, or training because of actual or perceived physical limitations or restrictions leading to the view that the person is disabled because of a previous, current, or potential pregnancy?

    Some examples.

Under the disability-related civil rights laws, “disability” is defined as a condition that “substantially limits and major life activity,” and there is no requirement that an impairment last a particular length of time to be considered substantially limiting (i.e. temporary disabilities may be covered). Think twice if you seek to deny services, aid, training or benefits because the applicant/participant:

● develops a disabling condition as the result of pregnancy or childbirth (such as preeclampsia requiring bed rest)
● has a record of a pregnancy-related or childbirth-related disability (such as developing gestational diabetes during a prior pregnancy)
● is regarded as having a disabling condition (such as limiting an applicant’s training or apprenticeship opportunities because you believe these positions could result in a miscarriage)

Focus on the essential eligibility requirements for the program or activity at issue, and ensure that the applicant/participant is not denied access to these programs if she meets the essential eligibility requirements. Look for accommodations that may be provided to allow participation where the applicant/participant has a temporary disability.

B. In the workplace

In the workplace, figuring out the proper way to investigate discrimination complaints often is complicated by allegations that leave requests (such as sick leave or FMLA leave) were improperly denied, or that these requests adversely affected an employment decision related to the employee. So, let’s sort out these issues in the context of pregnancy-related complaints.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) provides the following guidance:

If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee. For example, the employer may have to provide light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave, or unpaid leave to pregnant employees if it does so for other temporarily disabled employees.

Additionally, impairments resulting from pregnancy (for example, gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, a condition characterized by pregnancy-induced hypertension and protein in the urine) may be disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An employer may have to provide a reasonable accommodation (such as leave or modifications that enable an employee to perform her job) for a disability related to pregnancy, absent undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 makes it much easier to show that a medical condition is a covered disability.

We’ll illustrate this point with Joan. Joan suffers from “morning sickness,” and has asked for permission to take sick leave or FMLA leave on days she feels particularly bad. Her supervisor denies both of her requests, and she files a complaint with you.

Joan has asked for sick leave or FMLA leave, and she has let you know she suffers from “morning sickness,” you will investigate this as a disabiity-based discrimination complaint. You will look at the policies and procedures pertaining to employees’ requests for the types of leave at issue here, sick and FMLA. You will ask how those policies and procedures have been applied to other employees with temporary disabilities, and whether Joan is being treated differently from any other employee in your organization, male or female, with similar temporary or transient limitations.

Let’s say that Joan directs your attention to one of her co-workers, Jane who requested, and received approval for, sick leave and FMLA leave when she broke her arm last year. Here, you are looking to see whether Joan and Jane, and any other similarly-situated co-workers with transient or temporary limitations, were treated differently with regard to consideration of their leave requests.

Determinations as to whether folks are “similarly-situated” are made on a case-by-case basis; there are no “bright line” rules. In making such determinations, you want to ensure that your leave policies and procedures are not discriminatory either in favor of, or against, pregnancy-related limitations, and that these policies and procedures are being applied consistently to all employees.

    Tell-tale signs.

So, when reviewing a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint under disability-based nondiscrimination laws, ask yourself: Does this complaint allege an adverse employment action because of actual or perceived physical limitations or restrictions leading to the view that the employee is disabled because of a previous, current, or potential pregnancy?

    Some examples.

Under the disability-related civil rights laws, “disability” is defined as a condition that “substantially limits and major life activity,” and there is no requirement that an impairment last a particular length of time to be considered substantially limiting (i.e. temporary disabilities may be covered). Think twice before you engage in an adverse employment action because the employee:

● develops a disabling condition as the result of pregnancy or childbirth (such as preeclampsia requiring bed rest)
● has a record of a pregnancy-related or childbirth-related disability (such as developing gestational diabetes during a prior pregnancy)
● is regarded as having a disabling condition (such as limiting an employee’s promotion opportunity because you believe the duties required in the position could result in a miscarriage)

Focus on the bona fide occupational requirements, and the essential job duties, and allow the employee to participate if she meets these requirements. Look for accommodations where the employee has a temporary disability due to childbirth or pregnancy, as you would for someone with a broken foot or the like.

III. When to apply gender-based laws

A. In federally-assisted programs and activities

Denial of a service, aid, benefit, or training on the basis of prior pregnancies is a violation of federal civil rights laws. For example, the case of Pegues et al. v. Mississippi State Employment Service et al., 699 F.2d 760 (5th Cir. 1983) involved denial of an employment referral in a federally-assisted workforce development program. The Mississippi State Employment Service (MSES) reviewed applications of individuals who sought employment referrals to available, higher paying jobs at a local factory. One of the female applicants (Plaintiff) alleged disparate treatment in MSES’ classification, and referral, of her and other women to lower paying positions at the local factory as compared to similarly qualified male applicants.

The court stated, to demonstrate disparate treatment in employment referral, the Plaintiff must prove: (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she applied for an occupation for which MSES was making referrals; (3) she failed to secure a referral; and (4) MSES later referred a non-member of the protected group.

On examination of the evidence of record, the court found: (1) the Plaintiff was a member of a protected group (women), (2) she applied for a higher paying position with the local factory, (3) her application was denied, and, (4) based on her education and experience, she “was passed over in favor of other, similarly qualified (male) applicants.” Id. at 775. The court then noted:

By way of rebuttal, Defendants elicited testimony from (Plaintiff) as to her five full term pregnancies between 1970 and 1975, and various benefits in the form of training and referral that Defendants had conferred upon her between 1968 and 1970.
Id. at 775 (emphasis added). The court rejected Defendants’ proffer of rebuttal:
Given her factory experience and enhanced education, we do not believe the reasons articulated constitute a legitimate rationale for Defendants’ failure to reconsider her service classification and provide an opportunity for employment at Travenol. She is entitled to relief.

Id. at 775. The court concluded that Plaintiff successfully established gender-based discrimination.

    Tell-tale signs.

So, when reviewing a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint under gender-based nondiscrimination laws, ask yourself: Does this complaint allege denial of a federally-assisted service, aid, benefit, or training because of the views of the agency, organization, or company involved regarding prior, current, or potential pregnancies?

    Some examples.

The following list contains pregnancy-related examples of views that may lead to gender-based discrimination in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities. Think twice if you seek to deny services, aid, training or benefits because the applicant/participant:

● expresses an intention to become pregnant
● is undergoing fertility treatment
● is pregnant
● has been pregnant in the past
● may become pregnant in the future
● uses contraception
● is lactating or breastfeeding
● develops a non-disabling medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth
● has an abortion
● requests light duty work, modified tasks, or alternative assignments on a temporary basis (if available to other applicants/participants with similar temporary limitations)

B. In the workplace

An example of gender-based discrimination in the workplace is found in International Union, et al v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 499 U.S. 187, 111 S.Ct. 1196 (1991). Here, the employer had a policy that excluded women of “childbearing capacity” from holding certain “lead-exposed jobs.” Specifically at issue were certain jobs making batteries. Among the class action plaintiffs were (1) a woman “who had chosen to be sterilized in order to avoid losing her job,” and (2) a woman “who had suffered loss in compensation when she was transferred out of her job where she was exposed to lead.”

Concluding that the employer’s policy was “facially discriminatory” in violation of Title VII’s ban on gender-based discrimination, the Court noted the policy improperly “requires only a female employee to produce proof that she is not capable of reproducing.” As a result, the Court noted that the burden shifted to the employer to demonstrate that this discriminatory requirement constituted a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), which the Court found was not present in the case.

Citing to the PDA, the Court stated, “Unless pregnant employees differ from others in their ability to work, they must be treated the same as other employees for all employment-related purposes.” Said differently, women who are as capable of doing their jobs as their male counterparts may not be forced “to choose between having a child and having a job.” Based on the record before it, the Supreme Court in Johnson Controls found that “[f]ertile women . . . participate in the manufacture of batteries as efficiently as anyone else” such that the employer’s policy violated Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.

The Court made a point of stating that sex discrimination in the workplace has been allowed only under very narrow circumstances, such as definitive danger to others. The Court stressed, under these circumstances, “the safety exception is limited to instances in which sex or pregnancy actually interferes with the employee’s ability to perform the job.”

    The “safety exception” explained.

The Johnson Controls Court cited its prior opinion in Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321, 97 S.Ct. 2720 (1977) to illustrate the “safety exception” to gender-based discrimination. In Dothard, it was the employer’s policy to hire only male guards at a maximum-security male penitentiary. The Court held this was permissible as “employment of a female guard would create real risks of safety to others if violence broke out because the guard was a woman.” Under the facts of that case, the Court found that “sex was related to the guard’s ability to do the job-maintaining prison security.” In Johnson Controls, the Court emphasized, “in order to qualify as a BFOQ, a job qualification must relate to the ‘essence’ . . . or to the ‘central mission of the employer’s business.’”

    Tell-tale signs.

So, when reviewing a pregnancy-related discrimination complaint under gender-based nondiscrimination laws, ask yourself: Does this complaint allege an adverse employment action because of the views of the supervisor, agency, organization, or company regarding prior, current, or potential pregnancies, and the “safety exception” does not apply?

    Some examples.

The following list contains pregnancy-related examples of views that may lead to based discrimination in the workplace in violation of Title VII. Think twice if you seek to engage in an adverse employment action because the employee:

● expresses an intention to become pregnant
● is undergoing fertility treatment
● is pregnant
● has been pregnant in the past
● is taking pregnancy or parental leave
● may become pregnant in the future
● uses contraception
● is lactating or breastfeeding
● develops a non-disabling medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth
● has an abortion
● requests light duty work, modified tasks, or alternative assignments on a temporary basis (if available to other employees with similar temporary limitations)

IV. About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development and educational programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her Web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews.

Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.”

And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster’s series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals has received rave reviews, and she offers training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws.

Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “very relevant,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” Ms. Foster is certified in “Federal Workplace Mediation” through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

NOTICE: This paper is for informational purposes only. We do not offer legal advice. Specific questions should be directed to your legal counsel, or to the civil rights experts within your organization, agency, or company.

“Auxiliary Aids and Services Available on Request to Persons With Disabilities”

Saturday, September 15th, 2018

If you operate or administer federally funded programs and activities, or if you are a state or local government agency, federal civil rights laws require that you include the foregoing notice on all publications, broadcasts, and other communications. These federal laws are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. The idea here is that persons with sensory, manual, or speaking disabilities are entitled to nondiscrimination and an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, programs or activities funded by the United States government.

What are some examples of written communications that must include this notice?

The “auxiliary aids and services” notice must be included on a variety of written materials, including:

√ outreach materials
√ recruitment materials
√ orientation packets
√ brochures
√ written advertisements
√ application, registration, and enrollment forms
√ participant and employee manuals and handbooks

Take a look at the written and electronic materials that you distribute to staff, clients, and the public. Make sure these communications contain the “auxiliary aids and services” notice. An easy and inexpensive fix for written communications that do not currently provide the notice is to create computer-generated labels and affix these labels to the communications.

What does “auxiliary aids and services” involve?

Auxiliary aids and services encompass a wide variety of tools that you may use to assist persons with disabilities, including:

√ qualified readers
√ notetakers
√ taped texts
√ audio recordings
√ brailled materials
√ large print materials
√ equipment, devices, and software (such as assistive hearing devices, speech recognition software, and so on)
√ TDD/TTY or telephone relay service. Keep in mind here that any communication containing your telephone number must also include the TDD/TTY number or the number of the relay service you use. You must also make sure these numbers are operational and staff is trained regarding their use.
√ Qualified sign language interpreters

It is important to remember that any “auxiliary aid or service” must be provided at no charge to the individual with a disability.

What are your obligations to communicate to individuals with disabilities?

You have the obligation to “effectively” communicate with persons who have mobility, hearing, and visual impairments. “Effective” communication means it gets the job done. Often, this may be accomplished through use of auxiliary aids and services. And, keep in mind that:

√ You must provide persons with disabilities information as to the existence and location of accessible services, activities, and facilities; and

√ You must post the international symbol for accessibility at each primary entrance to an accessible facility. For inaccessible facilities, you must provide signage at the primary entrances, which directs folks to a location where they may obtain information about accessible facilities. See 41 C.F.R. § 101-19.6.

To whom do you have these obligations?

You are obliged to offer “auxiliary aids and services” to a variety of categories of persons with disabilities, including:

√ beneficiaries
√ registrants
√ applicants
√ eligible applicants and eligible registrants
√ participants
√ applicants for employment (for example, you may
need to provide accommodation for the interview
process, such as a qualified interpreter when
interviewing persons with hearing impairments)
√ members of the public

In determining the type of auxiliary aid or service to provide, you must give primary consideration to the request of the individual with a disability. A request for an “auxiliary aid or service” constitutes a request for reasonable accommodation or reasonable modification. Such a request must be reviewed and considered on a case-by-case basis; you cannot impose “blanket” policies or procedures. And, while you may consider “undue hardship” in providing accommodation, the process for considering a reasonable accommodation request is an interactive one and, in the end, you are obliged to provide an accommodation that is “effective.”

What are the obligations of private employers?

So far, we have focused on the obligations of entities that administer and/or operate federally funded programs and activities as well as the obligations of state and local governments with regard to persons with disabilities. Turning to private employers, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provide guidance for employers of 15 or more employees.

While private employers are not required to have the “auxiliary aids and services” notice on all their communications, these employers are prohibited by federal civil rights laws from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities” with respect to the terms, conditions, and privileges of their employment. Discrimination may occur in a variety of employment practices, such as:

√ hiring and firing
√ job application procedures
√ job assignment
√ training
√ promotions
√ wages
√ benefits (including health insurance)
√ leave

A “qualified individual with a disability” is an individual who: (1) meets the bona fide occupational requirements (i.e., legitimate skill, education, and experience requirements for the job); and (2) can perform the “essential functions” of the job (otherwise defined as the core duties that are the reason for existence of the job position). The person with a disability must meet these two criteria even without accommodation to be deemed “qualified.” On the other hand, a private employer is prohibited from disqualifying this person on grounds that s/he is unable to perform marginal or incidental job functions. See also prior paper titled, “The Meaning of Disability.”

If a “qualified individual with a disability” requests accommodation, the private employer must consider the accommodation request. Accommodation requests may take the form of:

√ requesting an auxiliary aid or service as described above
√ restructuring a job
√ modifying or adjusting the work environment
√ making existing facilities accessible to, and useable by, persons with disabilities
√ modifying work schedules
√ reassigning a current employee to a vacant position for which the employee is qualified

The purpose of providing reasonable accommodation is to allow the qualified individual with a disability the opportunity to contribute fully in the workplace and enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment.

A private employer should give consideration to a person’s accommodation request, but the employer is not required to provide accommodation if it would create “undue hardship.” Under hardship is an action that constitutes “significant difficulty or expense” in relation to the size of the employer, the employer’s resources, and the nature of the employer’s operation. This may also involve health and safety concerns; specifically, the individual poses a “direct threat” to self and/or others. Accommodation requests and considerations of undue hardship must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Seena Foster is an attorney and award-winning author of “Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI-Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination.” She is also a Partner with Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, VA. You may visit her website at www.titleviconsulting.com.

Political Affiliation Discrimination by Seena Foster

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

Political affiliation discrimination occurs when an adverse action is taken against a person based on the person’s political affiliation or beliefs. Political affiliation discrimination may arise in federally-assisted programs and activities as well as in the workplace. As the equal opportunity professional for your agency or organization, you must know the federal civil rights laws that apply to your agency or organization, and whether those laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of political affiliation.

We are going to explore two areas where political affiliation discrimination is prohibited by federal civil rights laws—one example involves federally-assisted programs and activities under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and the second example involves employment decisions of public employers.

Federally-assisted programs and activities

Starting with federally-assisted programs and activities, Section 188 of WIOA prohibits discrimination in certain workforce development programs on a variety of bases, including political affiliation or belief. Unemployment insurance benefits, employment referral services, on-the-job training, resume writing, and interview skill development are some examples of the aid, training, services, and benefits funded by the federal government through WIOA. American Job Network centers, Job Corps centers, and certain community colleges are prime examples of WIOA-Title I funded recipients and sub-recipients that are prohibited from engaging in political affiliation discrimination in delivering aid, benefits, services, and training to the public. And, any state, U.S. territory, or other recipient receiving WIOA-Title I funds also must comply with WIOA’s prohibition on political affiliation discrimination.

To provide an example of political affiliation discrimination prohibited by WIOA Section 188, let’s say that a new political party received the majority of votes in your state or U.S. territory. Members of the new party take office and they issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for organizations and companies to apply for WIOA grant monies to deliver training to unemployed persons. Reviewers of the 100 proposals select 25 organizations and companies for the WIOA grants. Of these 25 entities, a total of 24 entities are owned by persons whose known political affiliations are aligned with those of the new party in office. Only one entity has a known political affiliation with the former party in power. Of the 75 entities not selected for the grants, 55 have known political affiliations with the former party, 5 have unknown political affiliations, and 15 have known affiliations with the new party. If the new party has, in fact, considered an entity’s political affiliation in determining whether the entity would receive a WIOA-funded grant, then the new party has engaged in political affiliation-based discrimination in violation of the nondiscrimination mandates of WIOA Section 188. As a result, the RFP process would be null and void.

So, if you administer or operate WIOA-Title I programs or activities, you are prohibited from basing your decisions regarding delivery of aid, benefits, services, or training on an applicant’s, participant’s, or beneficiary’s political affiliation or belief. As the equal professional for an agency or organization operating these programs, you must train staff and decision-makers that aid, benefits, training, and services cannot be doled out based on political affiliation. Monitor your systems of delivery to ensure continued adherence to this nondiscrimination mandate.

Public employers

Turning to the workplace, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which applies to public employers and is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983, prohibits political affiliation discrimination. Public employers include state and local governments as well as other entities like publicly-funded colleges and universities, the police, and so on. This federal civil rights law requires that employment decisions, such as selection, promotion, and termination cannot be based on consideration of the employee’s or potential employee’s political affiliation or belief.

Take, for example, the case of Wagner v. Jones, 664 F.3d 259 (8th Cir. 2011), where the Dean of a publicly-funded college of law denied a legal writing teaching position to an applicant because of the applicant’s political affiliation. Notably, the applicant’s conservative political affiliations and beliefs were apparent from her resume, which reflected a background with certain conservative educational institutions and employers. Evidence of record demonstrated that one out of 50 law school faculty members at the college was a registered Republican. And, the court noted that two, less experienced applicants were later hired for the position at issue. In the end, the court concluded that the Dean presented insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the applicant’s political affiliation was not a factor in the employment decision.

So, if you are the HR/EEO professional for a public employer, engage in training and outreach to managers and supervisors, including political appointees at the highest levels of your agency or organization, and inform them of them of their obligations and responsibilities of nondiscrimination based on political affiliation. Help them understand that political affiliation discrimination can take many forms from the more commonplace acts of non-selection, non-promotion, and termination to other acts such as engaging in hostile environment based on political affiliation, providing an adverse performance appraisal, relocating a worker to a less desirable office, and so on. Managers and supervisors should base employment-related decisions on the knowledge, skills, and abilities evident from an applicant’s educational background and experience, not the applicant’s political affiliation or belief.

However, for public employers, there is an exception to this rule that merits comment. Notably, employment decisions related to “confidential” employees and senior “policy-makers” may be based on the employee’s or potential employee’s political affiliation or belief without running afoul of federal civil rights laws. Keep in mind that this exception will apply to a very narrow category of folks working for, or seeking to work for, a public employer.

Here, we’ll take a look at another circuit court case that is illustrative. In Soderbeck v. Burnett County, Wisconsin, 752 F.2d 285 (7th Cir. 1985), the circuit court was confronted with a newly-elected sheriff’s decision to terminate an office employee because the employee was the wife of the former sheriff who lost the election. The Seventh Circuit provides a helpful discussion on the issue of “confidential” employees and “policy-makers” in the context of political affiliation discrimination:

A public agency that fires an employee because of his political beliefs or political affiliations infringes his freedom of speech, see Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), but there are exceptions to this principle, carved out to minimize its adverse impact on the effective functioning of government. For example, employees at the policy-making level of government can be fired on political grounds. Id. at 367-68 (plurality opinion); Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, 722 F.2d 1307, 1309-10 (7th Cir.1983) (per curiam). Mrs. Soderbeck was not a policy maker; but if, as the defendants argue, she was the sheriff’s confidential secretary, then Kellberg could fire her without violating the Constitution. See Stegmaier v. Trammell, 597 F.2d 1027, 1038 (5th Cir.1979) (dictum). You cannot run a government with officials who are forced to keep political enemies as their confidential secretaries, and Mrs. Soderbeck was the political enemy of her husband’s political enemy, Kellberg. Any implication of the plurality opinion in Elrod v. Burns that only a policy maker is unprotected by the principle announced in that case was superseded by the broader formulation in the majority opinion in Branti v. Finkel, which allows an employee to be fired if ‘the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.’ 445 U.S. at 518, 100 S.Ct. at 1294. See also Livas v. Petka, 711 F.2d 798, 800-01 (7th Cir.1983). It need not be a policy-making office. If Rosalynn Carter had been President Carter’s secretary, President Reagan would not have had to keep her on as his secretary.

Mrs. Soderbeck, however, had been trained as a bookkeeper and her title was bookkeeper, not secretary or confidential secretary; and though she did do most of the typing in the sheriff’s office, there was evidence that if the sheriff needed something typed he would hand his handwritten draft to whoever in the office was handy. Burnett County has a population of only 12,000 and a tiny sheriff’s office whose six employees at the time of Mrs. Soderbeck’s termination did not have sharply differentiated tasks; it was only after she was fired that a position of “confidential secretary” was created with a different job description from that of the bookkeeper’s position that Mrs. Soderbeck had occupied. So while she did typing and handled legal papers, such as summonses and warrants, the other employees did these things too. She also did janitorial work, and performed domestic chores for the prisoners in the county jail (which is in the same building as the sheriff’s office and home) as jail matron and laundress–not the usual functions of a confidential secretary. And she did not take dictation–no one in the office did. If she could be fired as a confidential employee, so could anyone else employed in the office, on the theory that if an office is small enough the tasks usually performed by the boss’s personal secretary may be parceled out among all the employees.

This is not to say that Mrs. Soderbeck was, as a matter of law, an employee who could not be fired because of her political affiliation. It is to say merely that the question was sufficiently uncertain to be one for the jury to decide. The defendants argue that whether or not an employee exercises a policy-making role or is a repository of confidences that make loyalty an essential part of his job description should always be a question of law, but we cannot agree with this point, for which no authority is offered, and which has been rejected in previous cases in this and other circuits. See, e.g., Nekolny v. Painter, 653 F.2d 1164, 1169 (7th Cir.1981); Stegmaier v. Trammell, supra, 597 F.2d at 1034 n. 8, and cases cited there.

If you are the HR/EEO professional for a public employer seeking to terminate, or take some other adverse action, against an employee because of the employee’s political affiliation, make sure the employee falls in the category of a “policy-maker” or “confidential employee.” While job titles and job descriptions may assist in this determination but, standing alone, job titles do not determine the outcome. You’ll need to get into the weeds of the employee’s actual day-to-day job duties and functions. Concluding that an employee is, or is not, a “policy-maker” or a “confidential employee” involves very fact specific findings that must be made on a case-by-case basis.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Human Rights Institute and Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

Age Discrimination: What It Is and How to Avoid It (by Seena Foster)

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Age discrimination is prohibited by federal civil rights laws. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 requires nondiscrimination on the basis of any age in the delivery of federally-assisted services, aid, training, and benefits. And, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 bars discrimination against folks who are 40 years and older in employment practices.

In this article, we’ll cover the requirements of these laws, and set forth some specific steps you can take to ensure compliance.

√ In federally-assisted programs and activities.

In federally-assisted programs and activities, age discrimination is prohibited regardless of the age at issue. Federally-assisted programs and activities cover a wide variety of areas including, but not limited to, the following:

● workforce development, such as job counseling, job referral, unemployment insurance, on-the-job-training, and other programs and activities offered through the American Job Center network and Job Corps Centers;
● educational programs and activities offered at schools, colleges, and universities that receive federal dollars;
● public transportation systems;
● public housing;
● healthcare programs and activities funded with federal dollars;
● and many others.

Denying services, aid, training, or benefits in federally-assisted programs and activities because someone is “too old” or “too young” runs afoul of the Age Discrimination Act. That is, if you limit services, provide lesser services, provide segregated services, or deny services based on a person’s age, then you have engaged in age-based discrimination.

The only exception is when the federal funding agency designates dollars for a program geared to a particular age group. For example, Job Corps offers enrollment for its federally-assisted educational programs and activities to persons who are 16 to 24 years old.  Here, one of the essential eligibility requirements for participation in this federal program is age-related.

Absent specific age criteria set by the federal agency, as in our Job Corps example, age-based discrimination is prohibited in government programs. For example, let’s say you are operating a project management training program, which is partially funded with grant money received from the U.S. Department of Labor. Through this program, participants obtain specialized certification allowing them to bid on a wider variety of contracts issued in your locality.

Joan, a 36-year old, was denied entry into the program. She files a discrimination complaint alleging you only selected folks under 30 years of age. This constitutes an age-based discrimination complaint under the Age Discrimination Act.

Now, when conducting an investigation of this complaint, you’ll want to learn whether Joan met the “essential eligibility requirements” for the training program as well as who was selected and who was not, the bases of these decisions, and so on.

If you operate a government-funded program or activity to deliver aid, training, services, or benefits to the public, then focus on the following measures to ensure compliance with the Age Discrimination Act:

● Know the “essential eligibility requirements” for the program. Are there any age requirements? If not, then the Age Discrimination Act mandates age cannot be used to deny access to a program, or to offer lesser, segregated, or different services.
● Make sure each and every member of your staff working with a program, including your front line folks who greet the public as they come through the door, treats each person with respect, and does not segregate, exclude, limit, or deny access to a program or activity because of an individual’s age.
● Conduct training so that staff understands the Age Discrimination Act, i.e. what it is, where it applies, and what it means. Everyone needs to be on the same page—you cannot offer lesser services, segregated services, different services, or no services because someone is “too old” or “too young.”
● Monitor the program. Check census and other demographic data for your service population to make sure you are reaching your target populations, regardless of their ages. Check program data for any disconnects between the ages of folks who come through your doors and those who are actually served. And, finally, track your discrimination complaint log to pinpoint and troubleshoot problem areas in your systems of delivering aid, training, benefits, or services to the public.

√ In the workplace.

Unlike the operations of government programs, in the workplace, we are concerned with the treatment of people who are 40 years of age and over. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) stemmed from Congress’s concerns over stereotyping of older workers as being less efficient or less productive than their younger counterparts. Congress found, based on these stereotypes, older workers were treated less favorably.

The EEOC reports that 23 percent of all discrimination charges it received in 2012 included alleged violations of the ADEA, and the “most startling” component of these age-based discrimination complaints was that 64 percent of the complaints asserted discriminatory discharge of the worker. As a result, in 2012, the EEOC announced a new strategic enforcement plan targeting age-based discrimination in the employment context, which was approved by the Commission. One of its goals under this new strategy is to prevent age-based discrimination and harassment through increased litigation and targeted outreach.

At this juncture, it is worthwhile to take a brief sidestep and note that a variety of studies have come out in recent years demonstrating that older persons exhibit sharper minds in some areas, and have more stable emotions than their younger counterparts. For example, older air traffic controllers were studied by University of Illinois researchers, and found to exhibit expert navigation abilities as well as expert abilities coordinating multiple aircraft at the same time to avoid collisions. So, it is important to instill a workplace culture that does not negatively stereotype older workers.

Less favorable treatment in employment practices includes non-selection, non-promotion, issuing adverse performance appraisals, a hostile work environment, forced retirement, and termination. It can also include transfer to a less favorable position or office location, exclusion from meetings, and other less favorable privileges, terms, or conditions of employment.

If it is determined that less favorable employment policies and practices adversely affect folks 40 years of age and over, then prohibited age-based discrimination is demonstrated, unless the employer demonstrates that “reasonable factors other than age” are at the core of the less favorable employment policy or practice.  Notably, in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 176 (2009), the United States Supreme Court considered the complainant’s burden under the ADEA.  The plain language of the statute provides it “shall be unlawful for an employer . . . [t]o discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s age.”  Citing this language, the Supreme Court held an employee must show that, even if age is not the only cause for the adverse action, age must be the controlling factor in the adverse employment action; that is, the adverse employment action would not have happened “but-for” the employee’s age.

One example of application of the “but for” standard is found in the Eleventh Circuit’s 2013 opinion in Cobb v. City of Roswell, Georgia.  The court noted, in order to meet this burden, the employee initially must demonstrate a prima facie case that s/he was:  (1) at least 40 years old; (2) subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) replaced by a younger person; and (4) qualified for the job at issue.  The court stated an employer’s expressed need for “fresh” leadership, standing alone, will not carry the day in establishing age discrimination; rather, there must be a basis in the record to demonstrate that “fresh” meant “young” or “younger.”  If a prima facie case is made, then the burden shifts to the employer to present legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its conduct.  And, finally, the employee is afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that the employer’s proffered reasons are mere pretext, or are not true.  Here, the Cobb court held the employee “must meet each proffered reason head on and rebut it, and he cannot succeed by simply disputing the wisdom of the employer’s proffered reasons.”

Keep in mind, it is not illegal under the ADEA to favor an older worker over a younger worker, even if both employees are over 40 years of age. Rather, as stated earlier, the ADEA was enacted to protect older workers against discrimination in favor of younger workers.

The ADEA applies to your workplace as well as to apprenticeship programs, job notices and advertisements, and pre-employment inquiries. While there is no specific prohibition to asking the age, the date of birth, or the date of high school graduation of an applicant for employment, such pre-employment questions will be closely scrutinized in any discrimination complaint investigation to determine whether the information was obtained for a lawful purpose.

There is no upper age limit under the ADEA, which means that employers must be careful when imposing mandatory retirement policies. Specifically, if an employer seeks to impose mandatory age retirement, it must demonstrate that such a requirement constitutes a bona fide occupational requirement for the position.

And, sometimes, job requirements will have a disproportionately adverse impact on folks who are 40 years of age and over. For example, a job may require consistent lifting of 50 pounds during the workday and this, in turn, may disproportionately affect some older workers. Such job requirements are permissible so long as they relate to the essential functions of the job.

For purposes of illustration, we’ll use two court opinions to help us better understand the concept of age-based hostile work environment—when it is established and when it is not. Keep in mind, that discrimination complaints are very fact intensive. There are very few bright line rules, and these complaints are resolved on a case-by-case basis.

The two cases that we are going to look at are the 2011 New Jersey Supreme Court opinion, Saffros v. Anaya, Inc., where age discrimination was established, and the 2012 Third Circuit opinion of Vashinder v. Sec’y. Dep’t. of Veterans Affairs, where age discrimination was not established.

The plaintiffs in each of these cases alleged that derogatory age-related remarks were directed at them in the workplace. The Vashinder court found evidence of one “stray remark” about the plaintiff’s age, but concluded that this did not rise to a “severe and pervasive” level so as to create an age-based hostile work environment.

In Saffros, on the other hand, the court found evidence that company managers and supervisors continually made degrading age-related comments directed at, or about, older workers, including the plaintiff. Indeed, the court found that these comments were “severe and pervasive” enough to create a hostile work environment based on age, which constituted age-based discrimination.

So, where the Vasbinder court concluded a stray age-related remark did not rise to the level of hostile work environment, the Saffros court found a culture of the company’s leadership making derogatory age-based remarks was sufficient to create a hostile work environment in violation of the ADEA.

Next, in Vasbinder, the plaintiff, who was over 40 years of age, was demoted from Boiler Plant Operator Leader to Maintenance Worker. Although the plaintiff asserted that the demotion stemmed from the fact that he was over 40 years of age, the court found sufficient evidence presented by the employer to demonstrate that he was demoted because he was caught sleeping during his shift. Here, the court noted, “Sleeping while responsible for the boiler plant was a serious offense because of the potential consequences of an equipment malfunction.” Although the plaintiff challenged the employer’s investigation of a report that he was sleeping on duty, the court held that the employer followed its procedures, investigated the report, and took disciplinary action.

On the other hand, in Saffros, the court cited to multiple factors demonstrating age-based discrimination had occurred against employees aged 40 years and older. The court cited to one employee over 40 years of age, who had a history of exceptional work performance, but was terminated under a Forced Management Plan. The employer argued that the plan served a purpose of eliminating positions “to create cost savings.” The plaintiff requested a transfer to another geographical location with the company, but this was denied on the basis that there was “no money for moving.” It was problematic to the court, however, when the company turned around and hired a 33 year old to fill the same position as was held by the terminated plaintiff and the moving costs for the new hire were paid by the company. Based on the facts before it, the court concluded that age-based discrimination was established.

In the end, it is important to ensure that your employment practices comply with the ADEA. Some suggestions include:

● Focus on the bona fide occupational requirements and essential duties of a job, not the age of the applicant or employee.
● Avoid gathering age-related information, such as date of birth, date of graduation from high school, and the like, during the pre-employment phase of the hiring process.
● Do not include age preferences in job notices and advertisements.
● While stray age-related remarks in the workplace may not rise to the level of “severe and pervasive” conduct to create a hostile work environment, any such remarks should be discouraged. And, managers and supervisors must refrain from making such remarks, encouraging others to make them, or ignoring complaints by subordinates regarding such remarks. There is a point at which stray remarks evolve into more intense conduct that violates federal civil rights laws.
● Reductions in force and other “cost saving” measures implemented by an employer should not have a disproportionate affect on older workers. It will be particularly problematic for your organization if terminated older workers are replaced with younger ones.
● Monitor what is happening on the ground. Keep your eyes and ears open. Acts of discrimination may start small, but they can quickly build and create a drain on company resources to correct. It is best to encourage a respectful work environment, top to bottom, from the start.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, Principal of Title VI Consulting, assists administrators and equal opportunity professionals understand the civil rights laws that apply to their federally-assisted programs and activities. Her background includes 24 years as Senior Legal Advisor to the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, where she drafted decisions and orders and developed resources and aids promoting consistency and efficiency in several national adjudication programs. In 2012, Ms. Foster received the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Exceptional Achievement Award “for outstanding leadership and legal guidance in helping the Office of Administrative Law Judges address the major changes in law” stemming from enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Ms. Foster also served on detail as a Senior Policy Analyst to the Labor Department’s Civil Rights Center (CRC) and, in 2003, she led a team of specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews, prepared materials for limited English proficiency compliance reviews, prepared determinations issued by Director Annabelle Lockhart resolving numerous discrimination complaints, and presented at the CRC/NASWA national equal opportunity forum on the Workforce Investment Act Section 188 Disability Checklist. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award for her work at the CRC, and, on request by the CRC, Ms. Foster continued to serve as a workshop presenter at subsequent CRC/NASWA equal opportunity conferences conducting workshops on conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing determinations, and addressing harassment and hostile environment complaints in educational programs and activities.

Currently, Ms. Foster offers consultation services, assists in the development of policies and procedures, and conducts onsite civil rights training for state and local governments, focusing on the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities in the areas of workforce development and education. Her award-winning book, Civil Rights Investigations under the Workforce Investment Act and other Title VI-Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination, and her highly popular on-demand webcasts covering compliance and discrimination complaints investigations have been applauded by equal opportunity and compliance professionals for their clarity and content. Ms. Foster has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School, and she carries certification in federal workplace mediation from the Northern Virginia Mediation Service. Ms. Foster also is a member of the Human Rights and Discrimination Law committees of the International Bar Association.

On-Demand Civil Rights Webcasts Available: Delivering Public-Facing Programs and Activities in Compliance with Federal Law

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Delivered by Civil Rights Expert and Author Seena Foster

In 2017, State and local government officials are applauding the webcasts, stating they are “outstanding,” “very informative,” and “extremely useful.” Each webcast is only $29.00.

Available Selection

Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act: An Overview

Compliance with the Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Provisions of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: A Comprehensive Overview

Discrimination Complaint Investigations under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act:  Proper Process and Technique

State and local government officials responsible for the delivery of, or monitoring the delivery of, services, aid, training, or benefits to the public must comply with Federal civil rights laws. These laws also apply to service providers, on-the-job trainers, contractors, and partners that assist in delivering public-facing programs and activities. Our webcasts provide practical training for new and experienced professionals working in the area of equal opportunity.

Because the webcasts are on-demand and certificate-based, they provide a convenient and inexpensive way to acquire and document training of staff, contractors, service providers, and partners.

How to register:
To register, simply click on the “Webcast Registration” icon on the left side of this blog. Or, go to https://engage.vevent.com/rt/titleviconsulting.

Cost-effective.  Only $29.00 each. No travel costs.  No lost time from work. These webcasts are absolutely the best value for your dollar!

Content-rich.  Each webcast is packed with useful information, guidance, and helpful tips. Each participant receives a copy of the detailed PowerPoint presentation for the webcast, which may be used as a checklist going forward.

Certificate-based.  Within three to five weeks, each participant who registers and attends the webcast will receive a personalized, signed “Certificate of Completion” to document the training.  

Title: Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act: An Overview
Description:
This popular webcast provides an informative overview of how to comply with the nondiscrimination mandates of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI applies to the administration, oversight, and delivery process of all state and local programs and activities that are federally-assisted. In this webcast, we’ll focus on the scope and meaning of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and we will touch on a variety of compliance-related issues, including environmental justice, serving limited English proficient populations, contracting and procurement, discrimination complaints, harassment and hostile environment, training, monitoring, and data collection. Participants will understand the meaning of race, color, and national origin-based discrimination through Ms. Foster’s use of a variety of easy-to-understand examples. And, participants will learn about surprising federal enforcement policies to include certain types of religious-based discrimination as prohibited under Title VI. A detailed PowerPoint is available for download to viewers of this webcast.

Title: Compliance with the Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Provisions of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: A Comprehensive Overview
Description: 
This webcast provides a wealth of information, guidance, and tips to help you ensure compliance with the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions of Section 188 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and related Federal civil rights laws that apply to the administration, oversight, and delivery process for WIOA Title I-financially assisted programs and activities. In this webcast, we’ll cover a broad range of compliance issues, including taglines, assurances, Equal Opportunity officers (their selection and duties, and the recipients’ obligations in support of EO officers), serving persons with disabilities, serving LEP populations, differences between program complaints and discrimination complaints, harassment and hostile environment, and data collection, including requirements for the discrimination complaint log and storage of medical information. A detailed PowerPoint, updated after promulgation of the final version of the WIOA regulations at 29 C.F.R. Part 38, is available for download to viewers of the webcast.

Title: Discrimination Complaint Investigations under the Workforce Investment Act:  Proper Process and Technique
Description:
This webcast covers the discrimination complaint investigation process from start to finish, including determining jurisdiction, developing a complaint investigation plan, framing the issue of an investigation, developing interrogatories, preparing a letter of acceptance, gathering and analyzing information, interviewing the parties and witnesses, and writing the notice of final action.  Each participant of this webcast will receive a set of templates that they may customize and use for their investigations, including a jurisdiction checklist, sample complaint investigation plans, sample notices rejecting a complaint, a sample letter of acceptance, and a sample notice of final action. Complaint investigation templates and a detailed PowerPoint are available for download to viewers of the webcast. Complaint processing templates and a detailed PowerPoint are available for download to viewers of the webcast.

About Seena Foster
Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations. To that end, she offers one-hour on-demand webcasts, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, discrimination complaint investigation assistance, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. Federal non-discrimination laws are complex, and they affect our workplaces as well as the delivery of our Federally-funded programs and activities. Her book, Civil Rights Investigations under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination, has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource. Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors.

Her background includes 24 years as Senior Legal Advisor to the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, where she drafted decisions and orders and developed resources and aids promoting consistency and efficiency in several national adjudication programs. In 2012, Ms. Foster received the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Exceptional Achievement Award “for outstanding leadership and legal guidance in helping the Office of Administrative Law Judges address the major changes in law” stemming from enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by CRC Director Annabelle Lockhart, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act.

In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

Ms. Foster is a graduate of the George Washington University Law School, and she carries certification in federal workplace mediation from the Northern Virginia Mediation Service as well as mediation certification from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI). Ms. Foster also is a member of the Human Rights and Discrimination Law committees of the International Bar Association. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com.

The “Basis” of a Discrimination Complaint: What It Is and Why It’s Important by Seena Foster

Friday, June 15th, 2018

A discrimination complaint is filed when someone feels that s/he has been unfairly or unjustly treated as compared to someone else. Sometimes, the person believes that a process or criteria has been inefficiently or inconsistently applied to him or her as compared to another person.

There may be any number of reasons for the alleged differing treatment, yet only certain reasons are prohibited by law. The reason for alleged differing treatment constitutes the complaint’s “basis” or, in the case of multiple reasons, the “bases” of discrimination.

Why is the “basis” of a discrimination complaint important to the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional? It is one of the critical factors used in determining whether a violation of applicable civil rights laws has been alleged. While it is true that any form of discriminatory conduct or preferential treatment is offensive and unfair, not all conduct is illegal.

Federally-funded programs and activities

Prohibited bases of discrimination in federally-funded programs and activities are established by statute. For example, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that race, color, and national origin are illegal bases of discrimination. Disability is another prohibited basis of discrimination pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008. The Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on the basis of age—any age.

While the foregoing statutes set forth prohibited bases of discrimination across the board in federally-funded programs and activities, there are certain statutes delineating additional prohibited bases of discrimination, which are applicable to specific types of programs and activities. For instance, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (Title IX) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender in federally-funded educational programs and activities. And, one of the most expansive civil rights laws applies to certain workforce development programs and activities. Notably, Section 188 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 prohibits discrimination on the previously-mentioned bases of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and gender. And, it contains the following additional prohibited bases of discrimination: religion, political affiliation or belief, citizenship, and WIOA-participant status.

To illustrate the concept of “basis” and its importance, we’ll look at a couple of examples. First, let’s assume that Michelle wants to enroll in a GED program at a nearby public college, which receives WIOA-related funding from the U.S. Department of Labor as well as financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. The admissions officer of the college does not permit Michelle to complete the enrollment form because Michelle has been pregnant five times in the past seven years. Michelle files a complaint. Here, Michelle has filed a complaint alleging gender-based discrimination; that is, Michelle alleges that she is subjected to discrimination (not allowed to enroll) because of her history of pregnancies and, since pregnancy is unique to women, this is an allegation of gender-based discrimination. Because the college operates its programs and activities using federal dollars, the delivery of these educational programs and activities is governed by Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. And, gender-based discrimination at this college also is prohibited under WIOA Section 188. So, Michelle’s complaint alleges illegal discrimination.

Now, let’s turn to Joe, who alleges that he is being denied on-the-job-training through a WIOA-funded American Job Network center because he is homeless. If we look at the prohibited “bases” of discrimination under WIOA Section 188, we see that “homelessness” is not listed. Undoubtedly, discrimination against a person because s/he is homeless is offensive and unfair, but the WIOA EO professional does not have authority to investigate Joe’s complaint under WIOA Section 188 because his complaint does not allege a “basis” of discrimination prohibited by those laws.

If you are an EO professional for your agency, organization, or company, you must know the civil rights laws that apply to your federally-funded programs and activities. Review these laws to determine the prohibited “bases” of discrimination in the delivery of your programs and activities. If you receive a discrimination complaint, you will need to ensure that the alleged basis of discrimination is prohibited by one or more civil rights laws governing your programs and activities before you consider accepting the complaint for investigation.

In the workplace

If you are an EEO/AA/HR professional in the workplace, you also will need to know the federal, state, and local civil rights laws applicable to workplace discrimination. As with laws governing federally-funded programs and activities, civil rights laws governing the workplace will delineate certain prohibited “bases” of discrimination. These workplace “bases” include age (40 years of age and over), disability, equal compensation, genetic information, national origin, sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), race, color, and religion.

As an example, 46-year-old Mario alleges he was transferred to a less desirable office location and, recently, he has been excluded from monthly management meetings as compared to a 28-year-old colleague who continues to attend the meetings and occupies a highly, sought-after office location in the company. Here, Mario has filed an age-based discrimination complaint, and you would have authority to investigate that complaint under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

On the other hand, Joan files a discrimination complaint alleging that her supervisor does not like her and gave her a poor performance review because she is vocal in her disagreement with the supervisor’s policies. This complaint does not allege any “basis” of discrimination prohibited by federal or state civil rights laws. Notably, “personality conflicts,” “policy differences,” or “disagreements” are not among the prohibited bases of discrimination in the workplace. As a result, you would not have authority to investigate Joan’s complaint.

Conclusion

As an EO professional, it will save you time to make a list of the prohibited “bases” of discrimination under the civil rights laws applicable to your federally-funded programs and activities. For the EEO/AA/HR professional, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of the civil rights laws applicable to your employment practices. This knowledge, in turn, will help you quickly assess whether a complaint alleges illegal discrimination. For complaints that allege discrimination on a prohibited basis, you must ensure all other jurisdictional requirements are met prior to accepting the complaint for investigation. For complaints that do not allege discrimination on a prohibited basis, you do not have jurisdiction to investigate the complaint under federal civil rights laws, but you may determine that issues raised in the complaint may be addressed informally (such as by taking steps to address customer service issues in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities), or through the non-discrimination grievance process in place at your agency, organization, or company for workplace-related complaints.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations. To that end, she offers on-demand webcasts, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, assistance developing procedures, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally-funded programs and activities. Her book, “Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination,” has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource. Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors. To learn more about Ms. Foster, and the services she has to offer, go to www.titleviconsulting.com.

Harassment and Hostile Environment: Understanding the Basics by Seena Foster

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

If you are the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional charged with ensuring nondiscrimination in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities, or you serve as the Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action/Human Resources (EEO/AA/HR) professional charged with ensuring nondiscrimination in the workplace, you must have a working knowledge of “harassment” and “hostile environment.”

√ Two categories of harassment-related complaints.

Let’s start with an understanding that complaints of harassment-related discrimination fall into one of two categories: (1) quid pro quo harassment; or (2) hostile environment harassment.

Whether a complaint involves allegations of quid pro quo harassment or hostile environment, the conduct must be “unwelcome.” And, who defines whether conduct is “unwelcome”? Harassment is defined “through the eyes of the beholder”; namely, the person subjected to the harassing conduct defines whether the conduct is offensive and unwelcome.

√ Harassment is discrimination.

“Harassment” and “hostile environment” constitute forms of discrimination, regardless of whether the “harassment” or “hostile environment” occurs in federally-funded programs and activities, or in the workplace.

When we hear the word “harassment,” many of us first think of “sexual” harassment. To be sure, harassment on the basis of “sex” is a form of sex discrimination that is barred by federal law in the workplace, and in the delivery of federally-funded services, aid, training, and benefits.

That being said, it is equally important to keep in mind that harassment or hostile environment may occur on any prohibited basis of discrimination, including race, national origin, color, disability, age, and others. For example, you may see a complaint of race-based hostile environment, or a religion-based quid pro quo harassment complaint.

√ Quid pro quo harassment defined.

In the simplest of terms, quid pro quo harassment takes the form of bartering—“you give me this, and I’ll give you that.” A workplace example occurs where Jane, a supervisor, offers her assistant, Jason, a bonus in exchange for sexual favors. Jane has engaged in prohibited quid pro quo sexual harassment. Notably, Jane’s decision-making regarding whether to give Jason a bonus should be based on bona fide work-related criteria, not through bartering to get Jason to have sex with her.

Similarly, an example in the arena of federally-funded programs and activities is where Scott, the employment-referral counselor at a job bank, refuses to refer Khalid to available security guard positions unless Khalid renounces his Islamic faith. Here, Scott has engaged in quid pro quo religious-based harassment—Khalid must give up his Islamic faith in exchange for referral to the security guard positions. This discrimination is illegal because Scott is obligated to base his decision to refer Khalid to security guard positions on whether Khalid meets the essential eligibility requirements for the referral, not Khalid’s religious beliefs or practices.

√ “Hostile environment” defined.

Turning to “hostile environment,” this type of discrimination does not involve the bartering of “you give me this and I’ll give you that.” Rather, a hostile environment is created where one person, or a group of people, engages in offensive conduct that is “so severe and pervasive” that it adversely alters another person’s workplace environment, or the person’s enjoyment of, and participation in, federally-funded programs and activities.

In determining whether conduct is “severe and pervasive,” the following factors should be considered: (1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the severity of the conduct; (3) whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s job performance, or with a person’s participation in, or enjoyment of, a federally-funded program or activity.

An example of “hostile environment” in the workplace is where Kristen works as a welder alongside eight co-workers, all of whom are men. Two of these co-workers are constantly telling sexist jokes, posting naked photos of women in the work area, and whistling at Kristen when she is working. Kristen is offended by the conduct, and she lets her co-workers know that it is unwelcome. When the conduct does not stop, Kristen files a complaint. Kristen’s complaint involves allegations of a “hostile sexual environment,” which adversely altered her working conditions.

In federally-funded programs and activities, an example of hostile environment occurs where a group of students at a public school posts derogatory remarks on Facebook about Josh, a student with a mobility disability. Moreover, they call him “crippled” and “stupid” in the hallways of the school, and deliberately place obstacles in front of his power chair. Josh files a disability-based hostile environment complaint. Here, the offending group of students created a “disability-based hostile environment” that, in turn, adversely altered Josh’s ability to enjoy, and participate in, the educational programs and activities offered at the school.

√ Retaliatory “hostile environment” is against the law.

Whether in the workplace, or in federally-funded programs and activities, creating a “hostile environment” against an individual in retaliation for filing an EEO complaint, or in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint in a federally-funded program, also is prohibited. Every circuit court addressing this issue recognizes these complaints of “retaliatory hostile environment.”

If a person files a discrimination complaint, regardless of whether the complaint is ultimately successful or not, and then the person experiences “severe and pervasive” harassment from any member of your organization’s staff, your organization and the responsible staff members will be held liable. See Clegg v. Ark. Dep’t. of Corr., 496 F.3d 922 (8th Cir. 2007); Jordan v. City of Cleveland, 464 F.3d 584 (6th Cir. 2006); Jensen v. Potter, 435 F.3d 444 (3rd Cir. 2006), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006); Hussain v. Nicholson, 435 F.3d 359 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Noviello v. City of Boston, 398 F.3d 76 (1st Cir. 2005); Von Gunten v. Maryland, 243 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2001), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N., 548 U.S. 53; Ray v. Henderson, 217 F.3d 1234 (9th Cir. 2000); Richardson v. N.Y. State Dep’t. of Corr. Serv., 180 F.3d 426 (2nd Cir. 1999), abrogated on other grounds by Burlington N., 548 U.S. 53; Gunnell v. Utah Valley State Coll., 152 F.3d 1253 (10th Cir. 1998); Knox v. Indiana, 93 F.3d 1327 (7th Cir. 1996).

For example, in Gowski v. James Peake, MD (Sec’y., Dept. of Veterans Affairs, et al), 682 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 2012), the circuit court noted, after two hospital physician-employees filed EEO complaints of gender-based and religious-based discrimination, they were subjected to “severe and pervasive” retaliation at work, including the spread of demeaning rumors about the physicians by management that damaged their professional reputations, denial of hospital privileges to the physicians that could adversely affect their certifications, excluding the physicians from participating in work-related functions, and other similar acts. The court found, taken as a whole, this conduct created a retaliatory hostile environment, and damages were awarded against the hospital.

√ Obligations of EO and EEO professionals.

Thus, whether you work as an EO professional in federally-funded programs and activities, or as an EEO/AA/HR professional handling workplace discrimination, you must be familiar with the policies and procedures of your agency or organization pertaining to harassment and hostile environment. If no policies or procedures are in place, you must ensure that they are developed and published. Management and employees in your workplace, as well as beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of your federally-funded programs and activities must have notice of these policies and procedures.

If you receive a discrimination complaint based on harassment or hostile environment, you are required to take action. These complaints are fact-intensive and there may be more than one appropriate response to a particular complaint of harassment. Although only hindsight offers perfect clarity of what worked and what did not, doing nothing is never acceptable.

About the author.

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

Religious Discrimination and Accommodation in Federally-Funded Programs and Activities: An Overview by Seena Foster

Saturday, May 5th, 2018

As the Equal Opportunity (EO) professional for an agency or organization charged with administering federally-funded programs and activities where “religion” is a prohibited basis of discrimination, you should have written policies and procedures for handling requests for religious accommodation. In this paper, we explore some basic concepts related to religious accommodation using the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) as the context for guidance offered.

Some examples of WIOA-funded programs and activities are found at American Job Centers and their affiliates, partners, and service providers offering unemployment insurance benefits, employment referral services, and training. In addition, most Job Corps Centers offer WIOA-funded educational programs and activities designed to get young folks educated, skilled, and employed.

For WIOA-funded programs and activities, one prohibited basis of discrimination is “religion.” And, with this prohibition comes an obligation to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation when requested, if no “undue hardship” is present.

√ “Religious belief or practice” defined

Initially, it is helpful to have a common understanding of how the phrase, “religious belief or practice,” is defined. Because WIOA and its implementing regulations do not define “religious belief or practice,” we may look at how this phrase is defined under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits religion-based discrimination in the workplace. Here, we find that a “religious belief or practice” may represent mainstream religious views, or the belief or practice may be less common, less understood, and less well-known. And, the concept of “religious belief or practice” includes persons who ascribe to no religious belief or practice at all.

Some examples of “religious belief or practice” under Title VII include, but are not limited to, the following:

● Agnostic
● Atheist
● Buddhist
● Christian
● Hindu
● Jewish
● Kemetic
● Muslim
● Native American spiritual beliefs
● Sikh
● Wicca
● and countless others.

A common thread defining any “religious belief or practice” is that it reflects a person’s views of life, purpose, and death. On the other hand, social, political, and economic philosophies as well as personal preferences do not constitute “religious beliefs or practices” protected by federal civil rights laws.

√ The “religious belief or practice” must be bona fide

Religious-based accommodation is premised on the fact that the asserted “religious belief or practice” is bona fide. Said differently, it is “sincerely held” by the requester. Generally, this requirement is met without difficulty. However, if the requester behaves in a manner that is markedly inconsistent with the professed “religious belief or practice,” then you may determine that the belief or practice is not bona fide or “sincerely held” by the requester. This, in turn, means that there is no obligation to provide accommodation.

√ Essential eligibility requirements must be met

Before entertaining a request for religious accommodation, the requester must meet the “essential eligibility requirements” for the WIOA-funded aid, benefit, service, or training at issue. If a person does not meet the “essential eligibility requirements” for the program or activity, then there is no obligation to provide accommodation.

√ Common religious-based accommodation requests

In federally-funded programs and activities, some common religious-based accommodation requests include:

● Changes in scheduling of programs and activities;
● Modification of testing and selection procedures;
● Modification of dress and/or grooming requirements; and
● Permitting forms of religious expression.

In the workplace, religious-based accommodation requests may take similar forms of:

● Changes in scheduling of work shifts;
● Modification of testing and selection procedures;
● Modification of dress and/or grooming requirements; and
● Permitting forms of religious expression.

Generally, a religious-based accommodation request is made to address conflicts between a federally-funded program or activity and a person’s religious belief or practice. For example, your American Job Center receives a request that orientations for the Center’s programs and activities be scheduled any day of the week except Friday because Friday is considered a “holy day” by the requester. This is an example of a religious-based accommodation request.

In the workplace, the case of Sanchez-Rodriguez v. AT&T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc., issued by the First Circuit Court of Appeals on March 8, 2012, is illustrative of the types of religious-based accommodation requests an employer may receive. Here, an employee, who was a Seventh Day Adventist, requested Saturdays off from work. AT&T stated that providing the employee with every Saturday off as a matter of course would constitute an undue hardship; rather, as a “reasonable accommodation,” AT&T offered that the employee could: (1) take another position in the company that did not require working on Saturdays; or (2) arrange voluntary “swapping” of shifts with co-workers on his own. The court held that these offered accommodations (even though they differed from the accommodation requested by the employee) were sufficient such that the employee did not demonstrate religious-based discrimination.

√ Communication is a must

If a person seeks accommodation based on his/her religious belief or practice, then the accommodation request must be made known to the recipient delivering the federally-funded programs and activities (such as the American Job Center or Job Corps Center). Magic words are not required, but the requester must convey enough information for the recipient to understand that accommodation is sought pursuant to the requester’s religious beliefs or practices. A recipient cannot be held liable for failure to provide accommodation if it was unaware of the need in the first place.

Information-sharing between the requester and the EO Officer is critical as determinations of accommodation are made on a case-by-case basis after consideration of the particular facts.

√ Avoid discriminatory consideration of requests

If a person meets the essential eligibility requirements for a federally-funded program or activity, and the person requests accommodation based on a bona fide religious belief or practice, then the EO Officer is obliged to avoid consideration of discriminatory criteria when rendering a determination on the accommodation request. Examples of discriminatory criteria are as follows:

● “The person looks like a terrorist”;
● “The person’s beliefs are illogical, inconceivable, or incorrect”;
● “I disagree with the person’s beliefs”;
● “The person’s name is associated with a particular religion”;
● “The person’s name is associated with terrorism”;
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is offensive”;
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is immoral”;
● “I am uncomfortable with the religious belief or practice”; or
● “The person’s religious belief or practice is in the minority.”

It bears repeating that it is discriminatory to employ any of the foregoing criteria, or similar criteria, when considering an accommodation request. Sincerely held religious beliefs and practices are intensely personal, and they must be accepted “as is” for purposes of addressing a religious accommodation request under federal civil rights laws.

√ “Undue hardship”

● Defined

A recipient offering federally-funded programs and activities is obliged to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation unless it can demonstrate “undue hardship”. For example, the regulations implementing WIOA at 29 C.F.R. § 37.4 define “undue hardship” as follows:

For purposes of religious accommodation only, “undue hardship” means any additional, unusual costs, other than de minimis costs, that a particular accommodation would impose upon a recipient. See Trans World Airlines, Inc.v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 81, 84 (1977).

It is the recipient’s burden to demonstrate “undue hardship.”

● Not established, examples of

Asserting speculative, or showing only de minimus costs associated with providing accommodation does not give rise to a finding of “undue hardship.” And, “undue hardship” is not established by a recipient’s mere assertion that providing accommodation for one person will lead to an incoming tide of other requests.

● Factors to consider

As we noted earlier, “undue hardship” must be determined on a case-by-case basis after consideration of all the facts. The following factors may be relevant and are properly considered:

▪ Costs associated with providing the accommodation are identifiable and more than de minimus” in relation to the recipient’s size and operating costs;
▪ Providing the requested accommodation would diminish the efficiency of recipient’s federally-funded programs and activities;
▪ Safety would be impaired by allowing the accommodation;
▪ The requested accommodation would conflict with another civil rights law; or
▪ In the employment context, the requested accommodation violates of the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, or violates seniority rights of other employees.

In assessing whether a requested accommodation would conflict with another law, it is important to keep in mind that federally-funded programs and activities operate using taxpayer dollars, and there are taxpayers of all races, colors, national origins, genders, disabilities, and religions. These funds, in turn, are used to provide aid, benefits, services, and training to any member of the public meeting certain essential eligibility requirements. Attached to this federal funding are obligations imposed on the WIOA recipient to ensure nondiscrimination on a variety of bases, including religion, sex, race, national origin, color, disability, and age among others.

So, let’s assume that you are the EO Officer for a Job Corps Center, which provides educational programs and activities. Your Center is located in an area that is largely comprised of persons of a particular religion requiring separation of men and women in educational programs and activities. You receive a request for accommodation by persons of this religious belief asking that you provide separate classes for men and women at your Center. What should you do?

We start with the law. The regulations implementing WIOA bar discrimination on certain “prohibited grounds” as follows:

(a) For the purposes of this section, “prohibited ground” means race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, political affiliation or belief, and for beneficiaries only, citizenship or participation in any WIOA Title I—financially assisted program or activity.

29 C.F.R. § 37.6(a).

And, the regulations further provide that offering segregated or separate programs and activities is a form of discrimination:

(b) A recipient must not, directly or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements, on a prohibited ground:

. . .

(3) Subject an individual to segregation or separate treatment in any matter related to his or her receipt of any aid, benefits, services, or training under a WIOA Title I—funded program or activity; . . ..

29 C.F.R. § 37.6(b)(3).

In our example, the requested accommodation (segregation of men and women in educational programs) would lead your Center to engage in gender-based discrimination in violation of federal law. As previously noted, the law prohibits “segregation or separate treatment” on any “prohibited ground”, which includes sex.

Keep in mind that the same would hold true if you received a religious-based accommodation request seeking segregation based on race, color, national origin, age, or the like. It is not reasonable to discriminate against participants on one of these prohibited bases in order to accommodate a religious belief or practice.

√ Religious accommodation in the workplace; some considerations

If you do not have dress and grooming policies for your workplace, then it would constitute a form of religious-based discrimination to prohibit forms of religious garb or grooming on an ad hoc basis. And, if you do have dress and grooming policies in your workplace then, according to the EEOC, religious accommodation requires making exceptions to those codes to accommodate bona fide religious beliefs and practices. With or without grooming codes in place, it is incumbent on an employer to allow dress and grooming practices of sincerely-held religious beliefs, unless it would create “undue hardship.”

The standard for “undue hardship” is different for religious-based accommodation requests than for disability-based accommodation requests. Notably, in the case of a disability-related accommodation request, the employer must provide accommodation unless the accommodation will create significant difficulty or expense to the employer’s operations. On the other hand, undue hardship in the context of religious accommodation is a hardship that will create more than a de minimus cost on the employer’s operation.

Even in light of the lesser “undue hardship” standard, the EEOC has ramped-up its pursuit of religious-based discrimination in the workplace, and the EEOC rarely accepts arguments that a dress code constitutes “business necessity” for an employer (i.e. an employer’s argument that it needs to convey an uniform image of all of its workers). Most notably, lawsuits and charges have been filed where workers have been penalized for particular religious grooming, or donning religious garb. Some examples include Muslim head scarves, Sikh turbans, yarmulkes, and the presence of religious tattoos. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the EEOC’s position in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., and concluded the employer engaged in religious-based discrimination against a Muslim employee. The employer raised unsubstantiated assertions that it need not accommodate the employee’s request to wear a headscarf on grounds that the employee’s use of a headscarf constituted an “undue hardship.” The employer maintained that use of the headscarf departed from the company’s “look policy” and “corporate brand.” As noted by the EEOC, the employee had the headscarf on when interviewed, and had worked with the headscarf on for four months before being terminated. The employer failed to present evidence to show its sales had dropped in that four month period of time.

However, for both disability and religious-based accommodation requests, “undue hardship” may be demonstrated if safety concerns are raised. As an example, an employer may ban a Muslim employee’s use of a head scarf in a job where the scarf could get caught in machinery.

Sometimes, the lack of understanding regarding a particular religion’s practices is at the root of discrimination. For example, in EEOC v. Fries Rest. Mgt., LLC, Case No. 12-03169 (Tex. Aug. 22, 2012), religious-based discrimination occurred where the manager of a Burger King restaurant fired a Christian Pentecostal female cashier on grounds that she would not wear the standard uniform (including pants). Instead, because of her religious beliefs, she insisted on wearing a skirt.

√ Conclusion

In the end, religious-based accommodation requests are fact-intensive, and must be handled on a case-by-case basis. To the extent that “undue hardship” is not present, you are obliged under federal law to provide reasonable religious-based accommodation, if requested, to persons who meet the essential eligibility requirements for the program or activity. And, you must accept the requester’s bona fide religious belief or practice “as is.” For complicated accommodation requests, including any requests that may conflict with other federal civil rights laws, you should consult with the EO leadership of your state or territory for guidance, or consult the civil rights office of your federal funding agency.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” Ms. Foster has a “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Human Rights Institute and Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

“Adverse Actions” in Federal Civil Rights Discrimination Complaints by Seena Foster

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination on a wide variety of bases, including race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age, gender, and so on.  But, what types of conduct constitute “adverse actions” that may give rise to a complaint of discrimination? 

In federally-funded programs and activities

“Adverse actions” in violation of federal civil rights laws can occur in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities.  This is a less understood area of civil rights, yet the reach of federally- funded programs and activities is far and wide and includes public education, transportation, small business development, fair lending, fair housing, unemployment insurance, workforce development, Medicare, environmental justice, employment referral services, and many others.  Here, federally-funded services, benefits, aid, and training must be delivered to members of the public in compliance with nondiscrimination and equal opportunity mandates of applicable civil rights laws.

There are a variety of “adverse actions” that may occur in the delivery of federally-funded programs and activities.  Some “adverse actions” are similar to those found in workplace discrimination complaints such as harassment and hostile environment, or refusal to provide religious-based or disability-based reasonable accommodation.  We’ll illustrate some  “adverse actions” unique to federally-funded programs and activities through use of examples related to Section 188 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which governs the delivery of state and local workforce development programs and activities.

WIOA Section 188 mandates nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of WIOA Title I-financially assisted aid, training, benefits and services on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, gender, age, political affiliation or belief, and citizenship among others.  For purposes of these examples, we’ll assume that you are the Equal Opportunity Officer for a American Job Network center or a Job Corps Center and, in this capacity, you investigate complaints of discrimination.

√     Denying aid, training, benefits, or services

Steven tells you that he was denied enrollment in an on-the-job training program.  At this point, Steven has not alleged a violation of any civil rights laws.  However, if Steven says he was denied enrollment in an on-the-job training program because he is black, then he has alleged a violation of civil rights laws.  Specifically, Steven asserts an “adverse action” (denial of enrollment in an on-the-job training program) on a prohibited basis (color).

√     Denying access to apply for aid, training, benefits, or services

Maria alleges she was laid-off from her job.  She tells you that, when she walked into the American Job Network center, she was not able to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.  So far, Maria has asserted an “adverse action” (denial of access to apply for UI benefits), but she hasn’t asserted a violation of any federal civil rights law.  But, if Maria tells you that she is limited English proficient (LEP), and the packet of UI forms were available in English only, then she has alleged a violation of federal civil rights laws.  Notably, Maria alleges an “adverse action” (denial of access to apply for UI benefits) on a prohibited basis (national origin-LEP).

√     Providing one person different aid, training, benefits, or services than is provided others

Here, we look at the conduct of an employment referral counselor at your American Job Network center.  Widget Company has numerous job openings, and the counselor is referring people to fill these openings.  Janet complains that she was referred to a lower-paying position with Widget.  Thus, Janet has alleged an “adverse action” (referral to a lower paying job), but she has not alleged a violation of civil rights laws.  However, if Janet alleges that she was referred to a lower-paying position with Widget, but men with the same credentials were referred to higher-paying positions, then she has presented an alleged violation of civil rights laws.  Namely, Janet asserts an “adverse action” (referral to a lower paying position) on a prohibited basis (gender).

√     Segregating a person, or treating the person separately, with regard to his or her receipt of aid, training, benefits, or services

An example of segregation is where your Job Corps Center offers a computer science course, but requires that “persons with disabilities” attend the course at one classroom location, whereas all other students must attend the course at another classroom location.  Thus, there is an “adverse action” (segregation of classes) on a prohibited basis (disability).  To the extent feasible, you must provide integrated services, aid, training, and benefits allowing persons with disabilities to participate alongside persons without disabilities.

√     Restricting a person’s enjoyment of any advantage or privilege enjoyed by others receiving any aid, training, benefits, or services

Hostile environment offers an example of restricting a person’s enjoyment of federally-funded programs and activities.  Let’s assume that Borek is one of your Job Corps Center students, and he has immigrated to the United States with his family from Iraq.  He files a complaint with you alleging that other students call him a “terrorist” in class and in the hallways, they post derogatory material about him on Facebook, and they repeatedly tell him he should “go back to Iraq where he came from.”  Here, Borek alleges an “adverse action” (being subjected to a hostile environment) on a prohibited basis (national origin).

√      Treating one person differently from others in determining whether s/he satisfies any admission requirement or condition for aid, training, benefits, or services

Here, let’s assume that Marsha informs you that her application for on-the-job training has been denied by Carol, who works at your American Job Network center.  By itself, this denial is an “adverse action,” but it is not a violation of civil rights laws.  However, Marsha further tells you that she met the essential eligibility requirements for referral to on-the-job-training, but Carol told Marsha she was concerned about referring her because Marsha had been pregnant five times within the past seven years.  Now, a civil rights violation has been alleged.  Notably, Marsha asserts an “adverse action” (denial of referral to on-the-job-training) on a prohibited basis (gender-prior pregnancies).

√     Denying or limiting a person with a disability the opportunity to participate in a program or activity

Your American Job Network center offers weekly orientations for any interested members of the public to learn about the services, aid, benefits, and training opportunities offered through the Center.  Jake, who is in a wheelchair, tells you that he was unable to attend the orientation earlier this week because it was offered on the second floor of your building and your building does not have an elevator.  Here, Jake alleged an “adverse action” (denial of access to the orientation) on a prohibited basis (disability).

√     Determining the site or location of a facility that has the purpose or effect of discriminating on a prohibited basis

State and local officials are in the process of determining where to establish a American Job Network center in a particular city, and decide to place the facility near an affluent neighborhood in one suburb of the city.  However, a majority of the city’s population is located on the other, more densely populated side of town.  And, the majority of the population is comprised of Hispanics and African-Americans.  The minorities in this city generally use public transportation, which is widely-available on the densely populated side of town.  The center’s location in the affluent neighborhood is, however, sixteen blocks from the nearest bus stop.  Thus, by locating the center in the affluent neighborhood away from public transportation, the center is not readily-accessible by a majority of the city’s population, most of whom are minorities.  Here, there are allegations of an “adverse action” (location of the facility in a less populated neighborhood that is not readily-accessible by public transportation) on prohibited bases (national origin and race).

√     Imposing different eligibility criteria on a prohibited basis in the delivery of services, aid, benefits, or training

An example here is James alleges his bid for a contract to provide workforce development services for your city has been denied. This constitutes an “adverse action,” but it does not rise to the level of alleged discrimination. However, if James further asserts that his company was required to secure a higher amount of insurance coverage in order to be awarded the contract because he is Hispanic, and that non-Hispanic-owned bidders were required to demonstrate a lower amount of coverage, then discrimination on a prohibited basis is alleged. James alleges an “adverse action” (imposition of different eligibility criteria in requiring higher coverage) on a prohibited basis (national origin).

In this paper, we’ve discussed only a few types of “adverse actions” that may occur in federally-funded programs and activities.  Again, a mere allegation by an individual that s/he suffered an “adverse action” is not sufficient to support a discrimination complaint.  But, allegations by an individual that s/he has suffered an “adverse action” on a prohibited basis do support an allegation of civil rights violations.

As the Equal Opportunity professional for your agency or organization, you should make sure staff at the agency or organization understand federal nondiscrimination and equal opportunity laws applicable to your programs and activities as well as the types of “adverse actions” that may lead to a violation of those laws.  Moreover, you are obliged to notify beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of their rights under these laws.  It is important to have policies and procedures in place, and to conduct periodic training, so that each person in your agency or organization understands his or her role in the mission of delivering services, aid, benefits, and training to the public without imposing discriminatory criteria.  Keep in mind that these nondiscrimination laws cover all aspects of your operations, including outreach and recruitment, registration, counseling and guidance, testing, selection, placement, appointment, referral, training, and promotion and retention.

In the workplace

There are certain “adverse actions” that we typically see in discrimination complaints involving the workplace.  These “adverse actions” include the following:

●  Termination;

●  Non-selection;

●  Non-promotion;

●  Refusal to provide accommodation or modification;

●  Harassment or hostile environment; or

●  Receipt of an adverse performance appraisal.

There are countless other types of “adverse actions” that may occur in the workplace:

●  Relocation to a smaller and/or less desirable office location;

●  Refusal to provide training;

●  Denial of access to equipment and/or resources;

●  Denial of a security clearance;

●  Denial of paid and/or unpaid leave;

●  Exclusion from certain meetings; or

●  Imposition of dress and/or grooming requirements.

This list is not exhaustive; rather, it is designed to give you an idea of what constitutes an employment-related “adverse action.”

Just as with the delivery of government programs and activities, in the workplace, it is important to remember that an “adverse action,” standing alone, does not give rise to a discrimination complaint under federal civil rights laws.  On the other hand, an “adverse action” taken on the basis of race, gender, disability, or the like, does allege a violation of federal civil rights laws.

For example, Michael is blind, and he alleges that his company fired him after he asked for specialized voice-recognition software to assist him in performing certain job duties.  Here, Michael has alleged an “adverse action” (termination) on a prohibited basis (disability).

Another example is where Cheri alleges she was denied a security clearance because her supervisor “doesn’t like her.”  Here, the “adverse action” is denial of a security clearance, but no civil rights violation has been alleged by Cheri; that is, the fact that her supervisor does not like her is not a prohibited basis of discrimination under federal civil rights laws.  On the other hand, if Cheri alleges she was denied a security clearance because she is Hispanic, now she has asserted a violation of civil rights laws; that is, she alleges an “adverse action” (denial of a security clearance) on a prohibited basis (national origin).

If you are an EEO/AA/HR professional for your agency or organization, it is important that you train supervisors and managers regarding their obligations under various federal civil rights laws.  And, you will want to convey any additional requirements imposed by state and local human rights laws.  Taking an “adverse action” against an employee does not, in and of itself, constitute illegal discrimination.  For example, disciplining an employee based on poor work performance or shoddy attendance does not violate civil rights laws.  But, a violation of civil rights laws does exist if the “adverse action” is premised on how an employee looks, what religious beliefs s/he holds (or doesn’t hold), the fact that s/he is over 40 years of age, whether the employee comes to work in a wheelchair, or the like.

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background in this area, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” Ms. Foster is a mediator, and obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School. She is a member of the Human Rights Institute and Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association.