Employment Law 101: A Guide to California’s Protected Classes

Workplace discrimination comes in many forms. There is disparate treatment, which is when an employer actively singles out employees because of a protected characteristic (e.g. only laying off women) and disparate impact, which is when company policies discriminate against a protected class, such as a strict attendance policy that prevents women from acquiring senior positions when they take time off for pregnancy. There is also harassment, which consists of hostile actions such as racial slurs, sexual touching, intimidation, etc.

In California, both federal and state law prohibit workplace discrimination based on an employee’s protected characteristics. While there are federal protections in place for certain classes, California state law bestows protected status on even more classes of people, and there are even county and city non-discrimination ordinances that prohibit discrimination on the basis of height, weight, and other appearance factors.

Federal Protected Classes

In all 50 states, it is illegal to discriminate based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Citizenship status
  • Genetic information

Title VII, the principle law prohibiting workplace discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act are all federal laws that cover California companies with 15 or more employees. Companies with 20 or more employees are subject to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against employees over 40.

California State Protected Classes

As far as workplace discrimination and harassment are concerned, California imposes more legal obligations than many other states. There are more protected classes, more employers are subject to state law, and there are greater levels of liability in many instances.

In addition to all federally protected classes, California state law prohibits discrimination on the basis of the following:

  • Marital status
  • Sexual orientation and identity
  • Medical condition
  • AIDS/HIV
  • Military or veteran status
  • Political affiliations or activities
  • Status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking

Like federal law, California prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, but the state definition of disability is broader than its federal counterpart and offers a higher level of protection.

City and County Protected Classes

Many California counties and even cities have local anti-discrimination ordinances that protect specific groups. Both San Francisco and Santa Cruz, for example, prohibit workplace discrimination based on height and weight.

Discrimination laws offer effective and powerful protection for California employees. However, they are changing on a regular basis, which can make it difficult for California business owners to navigate them. For more information or assistance in maintaining a workplace that accords with all applicable laws, contact Integrated General Counsel today.

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Written by Integrated General Counsel

Our focus includes handling a variety of corporate matters and also includes litigation in state and federal courts. Our current practice includes providing transactional services and representing a variety of small and medium-sized companies as their outsourced general counsel.