What Are Protected Classes? Everything You Need to Know
Updated: Jan 24
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Celebrating almost 50 years of employment protections in America
Every year, the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. day provides us with a great opportunity to look back and reflect. Both on the progress we’ve made, and on the work that is still to be done.
In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was signed into place by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. compared it to a “second emancipation.” As Americans, we grow up learning about how important this law is, but let’s review what exactly it provided for Americans (and employees) of color.
At its core, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and altered the way employers in the United States hire, fire, and promote their employees.
Now, nearly 50 years after The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted, we can look back and see the changes it has created in our work environments and how it paved the way to create opportunities for other groups of people experiencing employment discrimination.
What is a protected class?
The Civil Rights Act was the first of what is now several anti-discrimination laws that designate protected classes. But how do we know who exactly these anti-discrimination laws protect, and what do they protect from? Let’s break it down.
A protected class is a group of people who share a specific common identity or characteristic (such as race or sex) and who are legally protected from discrimination on the basis of that characteristic. The term “protected class” is typically used in reference to employment discrimination, but it can be used in other situations as well. For example, in the way an architect designs a building to make it accessible (... or not accessible) and how that affects the protected class of people with disabilities.
Which classes are protected under anti-discrimination laws?
We’ll explain the specifics behind each of these protected classes, but here they are in a nutshell:
Immigration Status or Citizenship
7 laws passed that define protected classes in the US
There are several federal laws in the United States that prohibit employment discrimination based on protected classes.
1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johson. It outlawed segregation in public places and employment discrimination. In addition:
It guaranteed equal voting rights by removing some registration requirements and procedures biased against minorities and the underprivileged (Title I)
It prohibited discrimination and segregation in the public sphere (Title II)
And it attempted to prompt the desegregation of schools (Title IV)
Most important for employment law, Title VII is a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin (hooray, MLK Jr. Day has brought us back full circle!)
2. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
Signed into place in 1967, the ADEA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age against people who are 40 or older.
3. Executive Order 11478
Executive Order 11478 ensures that US workplaces reflect the diversity of America by prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, and age specifically for the civilian employees of the federal government (for example: the United States Postal Service).
It also requires that all federal agencies maintain an affirmative program of equal employment opportunities for civilian employees and applicants. This means that these agencies are required to take actions — such as tracking the demographics of their employees and reevaluating hiring and promotion practices — in an effort to create more opportunities for underrepresented groups.
This order has since been amended to include:
Sexual orientation (in 1998)
Status as a parent (in 2000)
And gender identity (in 2014) as protected classes.
4. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA)
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) introduced civil and criminal penalties to employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrants or individuals unauthorized to work in the United States. However, so it didn’t leave people out in the cold, the IRCA also offered a path to lawful permanent residence for many immigrants and made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of citizenship or national origin for those who are authorized to work in the United States.
5. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Starting in 1992, this act prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services.
6. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA)
Let’s hear it for our coworkers in uniform! The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects military service members and veterans from employment discrimination on the basis of their past, current, or prospective military service and allows them to regain their civilian jobs following a period of uniformed service.
7. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA)
This act prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic information. This means that health insurers and employers cannot discriminate against people based on genetically inherited disorders or predispositions to a disease.
Which classes are protected under state laws?
Protected classes are not just defined by federal laws but by state laws as well. States have their own laws to prohibit discrimination. While some of these laws are similar and can overlap with federal laws (e.g., many states have laws protecting against discrimination based on race, even though it is also protected under federal law), many states prohibit discrimination based on additional protected classes, beyond what federal laws require.
Some common protections include:
Medical marijuana use
State laws apply to the employers in the states in which they operate, including states where they have employees (even if the company doesn’t have a physical presence).
Who is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination statutes?
An employer who makes employment decisions based on a candidate's status as part of a protected class may be in violation of federal and/or state laws.
At the federal level, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), investigates charges of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. If the EEOC finds an employer has violated a federal employment law, the employer may face punitive damages ranging from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on the size of the company (yikes!)
Claims of discrimination brought under state law should generally be filed in the relevant state. For example, the California Civil Rights Department enforces state anti-discrimination laws in California.
Which classes are not protected?
Not all groups or characteristics are protected under anti-discrimination laws. Employers can base hiring decisions on the below characteristics:
Education level. Employers can require candidates to hold specific degrees or certifications.
Criminal history. While people with a criminal history are not considered to be a protected class, many states still have rules about whether and when an employer can consider a candidate’s criminal record. Fifteen states — including Colorado, Illinois, and Minnesota — banned applications requiring applicants to disclose criminal history. In California, employers cannot inquire about a candidate’s criminal history until they’ve made a conditional offer.
Undocumented status. While the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 protects immigrants with work authorization from employment discrimination, it also makes it illegal for employers to knowingly employ undocumented immigrants or individuals unauthorized to work in the US.
How you can help prepare your organization to navigate protected classes
When hiring, firing, or making other employment decisions, it’s important to be aware of both state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination against protected classes. Both Ethena’s Hiring & Interviewing course and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion courses help empower your organization with navigating around protected classes the right way.
By helping to protect employers from allowing implicit bias to affect their hiring or firing decisions, and by helping to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in your workplace, Ethena can be an invaluable partner to your organization in building a better workplace.
Ethena is a modern compliance training platform that delivers current, cringe-free content that employees actually enjoy. Request a sample course to see for yourself! If you’re ready to bring complex issues to life through thoughtful real-world examples, dynamic multimedia, and actionable next steps, let’s talk to see if Ethena is right for your company.