What Is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

EEOC staff in a hearing.

US Department of Labor / Flickr

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency charged with enforcing laws that prohibit job discrimination.

The EEOC investigates charges of discrimination and attempts to settle them when discrimination is found. If charges can’t be settled, the EEOC may file a lawsuit on behalf of the individual or the general public. (However, the agency notes, “We do not, however, file lawsuits in all cases where we find discrimination.”)

In addition to investigating complaints and dealing with charges of discrimination, the EEOC conducts outreach programs to prevent future cases of discrimination. The EEOC is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has 53 field offices throughout the United States. 

EEOC and Employment Discrimination

Legislation covered by the EEOC includes laws that prohibit discrimination, provide for equal pay, and mandate equal access to employment for qualified individuals with disabilities. These laws include:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Federal contractors and subcontractors must take affirmative action to ensure equal access to employment without considering race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Employers are prohibited from discriminating in any phase of employment including hiring, recruiting, pay, termination, and promotions.

Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, as well as colleges and universities (both public and private), employment agencies, and labor organizations such as unions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

EEOC and Wage Discrimination

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), which protects men and women who perform substantially equal work in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination.

Employers are prohibited from offering a lower wage to women (or men) if another man (or woman) is doing the same work at a higher wage. Labor organizations or their agents are also prohibited from influencing employers to offer different levels of pay to male and female employees.

The EPA is part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which it amends to prohibit wage discrimination based on sex.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which codified into law the EEOC’s stance that each inequitable paycheck is a separate incident of wage discrimination. In practice, the Act extended the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits in cases of pay discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, age, religion, and disability.

EEOC and Age Discrimination

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older. The ADEA applies to organizations with 20 or more workers, including governmental entities, labor organizations, and employment agencies.

Employers are allowed to give preference to older workers over younger ones (even if those younger workers are age 40 or older). Further, the ADEA does not protect workers younger than age 40 from employment discrimination based on age.

Therefore, if you work in an age-obsessed industry, are less than 40 years old, but think you’re being discriminated against based on age, the ADEA’s protections wouldn’t apply to your case.

EEOC Protections for Workers With Disabilities

Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibit employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector, and in state and local governments.

Title I covers employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against people with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, firing, compensation, job training, and other employment conditions. Title I also applies to labor organizations and employment agencies.

Title V contains various provisions related to Title I and other Titles of the ADA. For example, Title V specifies that the ADA doesn’t override other federal, state, or local laws that provide equal or greater protection than the Act. It also specifies that people who engage in illegal drug use are not covered by the ADA.

Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government, as well as laying out specifications about legal remedies and attorneys’ fees.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991, which, among other things, provides monetary damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination. It also amends several EEOC statutes, allowing, for example, jury trials and potential damages in Title VII and ADA lawsuits involving intentional discrimination.

EEOC and Enforcement Protections for LGBT Workers

According to the EEOC, the EEOC interpretation of Title VII provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sex includes any acts of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Prohibitions will be enforced regardless of any state or local statutes to the contrary. 

Examples of LGBT-Related Sex Discrimination Claims

Some examples of LGBT-related claims that the EEOC views as unlawful sex discrimination include:

  • Failing to hire an applicant because she is a transgender woman.
  • Firing an employee because they are planning or have made a gender transition.
  • Denying an employee equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee's gender identity.
  • Harassing an employee because of a gender transition, such as by intentionally and persistently failing to use the name and gender pronoun that correspond to the gender identity with which the employee identifies, and which the employee has communicated to management and employees.
  • Denying an employee a promotion because they are gay or straight.
  • Discriminating in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, such as providing a lower salary to an employee because of sexual orientation, or denying spousal health insurance benefits to a female employee because her legal spouse is a woman, while providing spousal health insurance to a male employee whose legal spouse is a woman.
  • Harassing an employee because of their sexual orientation; for example, by derogatory terms, sexually-oriented comments, or disparaging remarks for associating with a person of the same or opposite sex.
  • Discriminating against or harassing an employee because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, in combination with another unlawful reason; for example, on the basis of transgender status and race, or sexual orientation and disability.

EEOC Oversight and Enforcement

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all of these laws and provides oversight and coordination of all federal equal employment opportunity regulations, practices, and policies. 

State Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions

Additional oversight, and in some cases additional protections, are provided by human rights agencies at the state level. Individuals who believe that their rights have been violated might also consult with these agencies for redress of their grievances. States can add additional legal protections but are not permitted to negate any of the protections provided through the EEOC.