If you are discriminated against in the workplace, there are protections for you. You can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a complaint. The EEOC is the federal agency that looks into such complaints of discrimination.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) does not allow discrimination in the workplace based on a person’s disability. The ADA defines “disability” as an impairment that affects one or more of your major life activities. The ADA only protects you against discrimination at work if you are a “qualified individual with a disability,” meaning that you have the skill, experience, education, and other essential qualifications to do your job with or without a reasonable accommodation. If you are a qualified person with a disability who thinks that you have been discriminated against at work, contact the EEOC.
This packet gives an overview of how to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC and what that complaint process looks like.
Examples of discrimination in the workplace
- Not being hired or considered for employment because of your disability
- Not being promoted because of your disability
- Having your pay reduced because of your disability
- Being fired because of your disability
- Not receiving a reasonable accommodation for your disability
- Workplace harassment because of your disability
- Retaliation against you for standing up for your rights under the ADA
- An employment agency refusing to refer you for employment because of your disability
- Other negative effects on your working environment because of your disability
You may complain to the EEOC if you believe that your employment rights have been violated. You must file at the EEOC first before a private lawsuit can be filed in court.
You must file at the EEOC no later than 180 days after your rights under the ADA were violated.
Definitions of commonly used words at the EEOC
- Charge of Discrimination: When you go to the EEOC to complain against an employer, your complaint is called a charge of
- Charging Party: This is you, the person with a You become the charging party as soon as you file a charge of discrimination against your employer.
- Adverse Employment Action: This is negative experience(s) at work that cause you to think you were discriminated against because of your disability. An adverse employment action includes being fired or any of the other examples given of discrimination work.
Filing Your Charge of Discrimination
You must file at the EEOC no later than 180 days after the adverse employment action happened. If you wait more than 180 days, you lose the right to file a charge of discrimination at the EEOC and you lose the right to sue your employer in court.
You can reach the EEOC by phone, on-line, or in-person. If you need assistance or an accommodation (such as a sign-language interpreter) to file at the EEOC, you should tell the EEOC ahead of time so that they can be ready for you. If you decide to file a charge of discrimination in person, call the EEOC office first and they will tell you the best time for you to come. To find out the nearest EEOC office to your location, visit the EEOC office locater and enter your zip code.
All offices are open 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8:30 a.m. to noon on Fridays. Arrive at the EEOC office two hours before closing for same day service.
Your case at the EEOC begins when you tell the EEOC that you want to file a charge of discrimination. You will be asked questions to figure out whether or not the EEOC is allowed to look into your case.
An example of a screening question
The EEOC interviewer might ask you how many people work at your job. The EEOC interviewer might also ask you if your employer has more than one office or job site. This is because the ADA only covers employers with 15 or more workers, including workers at different offices or worksites within a certain geographical area.
You do not need a lawyer to file a charge of discrimination at the EEOC, but you can hire one if you want. You can also bring a friend, a family member, or anyone else with you to the EEOC.
What the EEOC will need from you
When you talk to the EEOC, they will need some information from you:
1. The name, address, and telephone number of the:
- Charging party (you);
- Company, employment agency, or union that you are complaining of;
- The number of employees (or union members), if known;
- Any witnesses that know about the discrimination against you; and
- A person who always knows how to get in touch with you.
2. A clear story of what happened to you. You have to explain how it is because of your disability that:
- You were not hired
- You were fired
- You were not promoted
- Your pay was reduced
- You did not receive a reasonable accommodation
- You were not referred for employment
- You experienced harassment
- You were retaliated against for standing up for your rights
- You experienced some other negative effect on your working conditions.
- The date(s) when the adverse employment action(s) happened.
The exact date is important because of the strict 180-day time limit to file a charge. You can find examples of adverse employment actions in the next section.
3. A clear request that the EEOC look into your claim of discrimination.
- If you fill out the online information form, you must click the box at the end of the form that says you want to file a charge of discrimination. If you do not click this box, the EEOC will not start investigating your claim. More importantly, your time to file a charge might run out, and you will have lost your rights to a legal remedy under the ADA.
4. Copies of any documents or papers that support your claim that you experienced discrimination.
Keep in mind – the clearer you are about what happened to you, the easier it is for the EEOC to figure out whether you were discriminated against. You might want to practice telling a friend or family member your story to see if it makes sense to them. Try to practice on someone that has not heard about what happened to you yet. Let the friend or family member ask you questions if they do not understand your story. The next time you tell the story, try to use the answers to their questions in your story.
You might also want to write down your story from start to finish so that you do not leave anything out. When you are putting your story together, try to include only facts. Leave out your bad feelings toward your employer or people you work with – this makes you less likable and can distract from your important story about being discriminated against.
It might also be a good idea to write down a timeline of what happened to you. For example, start with the date you were hired, put the date that your employer learned that you have a disability, then put the date you experienced the adverse employment action(s) – do this for each thing that you want to tell the EEOC about. All of these steps will help you get ready to tell your story to the EEOC.
Adverse Employment Action
When an employer discriminates against you because of your disability, it is called an “adverse employment action.” For the EEOC to be able to take action on your behalf, you must be able to tell the EEOC how you suffered an adverse employment action because of your disability. Here are some examples of when people have suffered an adverse employment action because of their disability:
You are a person with a disability who thinks that you have been discriminated against at work. You file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Then your employer fires you. You think you were fired because you went to the EEOC to protect your rights under the ADA. Now you go back to the EEOC to complain against your employer for firing you. Your story is that you were retaliated against – you were fired – for attempting to protect your rights under the ADA.
- Being fired is the “adverse employment action.”
You are a person with physical disabilities that make it hard for you to stand for long periods of time. You ask your employer for a reasonable accommodation.
In this example, a reasonable accommodation might be getting permission from your employer to sit down sometimes during your shift. Your employer refuses to allow you to sit, which makes it hard or impossible to do your job. Your story is that you were denied a reasonable accommodation for your disability.
- Not being allowed to sit is the “adverse employment action.”
You are interviewing for a job. You tell the employer or the employment agency that you have a disability. Then the employer or employment agency refuses to look at your application, or tells you that there are no openings right now for people with your disability, or tells you that they do not think that you can do the job because of your disability, or tells you some other similar reason or excuse. Your story is that you were not considered for a job because of your disability.
- The refusal to consider you for a job is the “adverse employment action. ”
You are a person with a Your boss or supervisor is really mean to you, but is also mean to a lot of other people at your job. This is probably not discrimination based on your disability because people without disabilities are being treated the same way.
Reminder: There is a Strict Time Limit for Filing a Charge of Discrimination
A charge of discrimination must be filed at the EEOC within 180 days after the adverse employment action. For example, if you were fired on May 1, 2009 because of your disability, you must file at the EEOC within 180 days from then, which would be October 28, 2009.
However, you are strongly encouraged to file a charge of discrimination as soon as the adverse employment action happens. If your 180 days has already gone by, your claim against your employer has been lost. However, check www.eeoc.gov/charge or ask the EEOC if yours is one of the extremely rare and special times when you have more than 180 days to file.
After You File a Charge of Discrimination
The EEOC process begins when you file a charge of discrimination. What happens next? You will receive confirmation that you have filed a charge. Then your charge will be looked into, settled, mediated, conciliated, or dismissed.
Once you have filed a charge of discrimination, the EEOC will send you a receipt that shows that you filed a charge with them. You should receive the receipt in the mail about two weeks after you file your charge. Contact the EEOC right away if you do not receive this mailing – it might mean that you have not finished filing your charge yet, and the EEOC may need more information from you.
If you send anything to the EEOC by mail, you may want to buy delivery confirmation or another tracking service so that you can make sure that the EEOC got your mail. If you are trying to file a charge of discrimination close to the end of the 180-day time limit, contact the EEOC to make sure that you can meet the time limit and protect your rights. If you cannot reach the EEOC by telephone, go there in person!
Keep a copy of all of the paperwork, including your Charge of Discrimination, that you give to the EEOC.
Your case will be given to an investigator at the EEOC if the EEOC thinks that your employer might have discriminated against you because of your disability. The investigator will research your case. The investigator will rely on your story to do their investigation. This is why it is so important for your story to be as clear, specific and easy to understand as you can make it. Just remember – if you want the investigator to know something, you have to tell them!
Mediation or Settlement
Mediation is when both sides (you and the employer) want to settle the charge of discrimination. Settlement happens if you and the employer (during mediation) agree on how the employer will repair the discrimination against you.
Nobody can make you or the employer agree to mediate. If mediation is successful, that means that you and the employer have agreed on how the employer will address their unlawful treatment of you. You and your employer will also sign a written settlement agreement that says what the employer has agreed to do for you.
If you and the employer sign the settlement agreement, the EEOC process is finished. You are no longer allowed to complain against your employer about this discrimination at the EEOC. Settlement also means that you are not allowed to sue your employer because of this discrimination in court.
However, if mediation is unsuccessful, that means you and the employer cannot agree on how the employer will repair the discrimination against you. That also means that there was no settlement, and the EEOC will keep investigating your charge of discrimination.
The mediator is not like a judge and cannot say that you or your employer won or lost the case. The mediator is not on your side or the employer’s side. The mediator’s only job is to help both sides talk about ways to settle the charge of discrimination.
A charge can be sent to mediation at any point after the charge is filed if both sides agree to mediate. If mediation works, possible settlements could be that you are re-hired, that you will be paid back pay, or any other agreement between you and the employer that you feel repairs the discrimination against you.
Conciliation is a lot like mediation, it just happens much later in the EEOC process. You and your employer go to conciliation only after the EEOC has substantiated your charge of discrimination. This means that the EEOC looked into your case, and says that the employer discriminated against you.
Like in mediation, the goal of conciliation is for both sides to settle the case. But now when you and the employer sit down and try to settle the case, you have the EEOC telling the employer that they discriminated against you. This puts more pressure on the employer to settle.
Like mediation, conciliation might not end up in a settlement. If conciliation does not work, two things can happen. First, the EEOC could take your case to court. Second, the EEOC might give you a “Right to Sue” letter that lets you sue the employer in court. If you receive a Right to Sue letter, you only have 90 days to file in court from the date of the letter. If you do not meet this time limit, you lose all of your rights.
If you get a Right to Sue letter, you do not have to have an attorney to file a lawsuit against your employer in court. However, if you think you will hire an attorney if you get a Right to Sue letter, you may want to start looking for an attorney as soon as you find out you are going to conciliation. There will be a very short amount of time between the unsuccessful conciliation meeting and when you will receive the Right to Sue letter. You will be more likely to meet the 90-day deadline to sue in court if you have already found an attorney by the time you get the Right to Sue letter.
The EEOC has the right to dismiss your charge at any point after it is filed. If your charge is dismissed, the EEOC will send you a “Right to Sue” letter. That letter gives you the right to sue the employer yourself. You have 90 days from the date on the right to sue letter to file a case against your employer in state or federal court.
View a flow chart of the EEOC process.
What Are Possible Outcomes for My Case?
After mediation, settlement or conciliation at the EEOC, or if your case ends up in state or federal court, the outcomes may be:
- Back Pay
- Payment of Court Costs
- Front Pay
- Reasonable Accommodation
- Payment of Attorney’s Fees
- Payment of Expert Witness Fees
- Other outcome that makes you “whole”
Learn more about your disability rights in the workplace.