Landmark EEOC ruling finds protections for transgender employees

Federal law provides a number of protections against employment discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Under federal law, employers are prohibited against taking any negative action against an employee or job applicant on the basis of his or her race, national origin, religion, sex, age or disability. Notably, though, federal law does not provide employment protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

This does not mean that victims are automatically without recourse, however. It just means that they may have to be more creative when bringing their claims.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a landmark ruling in which it determined that transgender employees are entitled to discrimination protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This law protects against adverse employment actions based on a person's sex.

The case involved a job applicant who had been offered a position at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. Approximately two months after the offer was made, the applicant informed the agency that she identified as transgender and was planning on transitioning from male to female. After the applicant made this disclosure, the agency told her that the position had been eliminated. The applicant later learned that another person had been given the job.

Although federal law does not provide employment protection on the basis of gender identity, the EEOC ultimately determined that the applicant had been unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of her sex. It ordered the ATF to offer the applicant the job she had initially applied for and to provide her with almost one year of back pay, among other remedies.

This was not the only recent case that established some federal protections for transgender employees. In another case (the details of which have been kept confidential), the EEOC ruled that a transgender woman who was subjected to physical and verbal harassment while working for a federal contractor was also entitled to protection under Title VII. The EEOC determined that the employer had fostered a hostile work environment because it failed to intervene after being made aware of the harassment.

Impact in New Jersey

Unlike federal law, New Jersey state employment law does provide protections against discrimination, harassment and retaliation on the basis of sexual orientation and transgender status. Because New Jersey's laws tend to offer stronger protection than federal laws, many aggrieved employees choose to seek redress. Even so, the EEOC's rulings will provide additional protections for transgender individuals who work for or are seeking employment with the federal government.

Of course, every claim is different, and one outcome doesn't necessarily guarantee the results in a different case. If you have been treated unfairly on the job, talk to a New Jersey employment law attorney who can help you understand your rights and options.