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Workplace Discrimination: Who Suffers the Most?


We all know how hard it is to find a job during a recession. Unfortunately, race, gender, sexual orientation, weight, smoking habits, and age can make your job search even harder and cause workplace discrimination.


According to the December 2009, Bureau of Labor Employment Situation Survey, the unemployment rates for the third quarter of 2009 were as follows:

    • Adult men 10.1 percent
    • Adult women 7.7 percent
    • Teenagers 25.1 percent
    • White 8.8 percent
    • Black or African American 15.0 percent
    • Latino ethnicity or Hispanic 12.7 percent

As you can see, black Americans are almost twice as likely to be out of work as white Americans. According to theNew York Times, a college degree doesn’t always help when it comes to race. “The unemployment rate for black male college graduates twenty-five and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates—8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.”

If African American applicants with a college degree are having problems, imagine how hopeless it must feel to anyone with a criminal record. Devah Pager, sociology professor and author of Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration studies the problems ex-convicts face when looking for a job. Pager randomly assigned young, articulate, attractive, and capable men criminal records and then sent them looking for jobs. Ex-offenders received less than half of the callbacks of equally qualified applicants without criminal backgrounds. She also found that it is easier for a white person with a criminal record to get a job than a black person with no criminal record.

Women may not be as discriminated against as they used to be—as a whole. However, pregnant women are still having a hard time. According to Time magazine, “Complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are on a decade-long rise, up 65 percent from 1992 to 2007. And the number of cases the EEOC has decided to take on has quadrupled in the same period.”

Not hiring pregnant women can lead to the unfair and dangerous practice of not hiring women because they may someday get pregnant. Companies consider health insurance costs and time off when looking at women who are, or may someday, become pregnant. According to a recent article by Mother Jones, “Every industrialized country except the U.S. and Australia has paid parental leave with a guaranteed job on return to work.” That same article states, “Women make 80 cents on the male dollar, even accounting for time off to raise kids. If that factor is not accounted for, women make 56 cents. Over her career, the average working woman loses $1.2 million to wage inequity.” Mother Jones goes on to report, “Women over sixty-five are almost twice as likely to be poor as men.” This is interesting as the article also states that, “Companies with women in top jobs see 35 percent higher returns than those without.”

In their 2008 study, “Before and After: Gender Transitions, Human Capital, and Workplace Experiences,” Schilt and Wiswall found that women who become men do significantly better than men who become women. Men who became women earned 32 percent less after transitioning, and women who became men earned 1.5 percent more. In this study, some were out and some weren’t; that did not seem to matter as much as which gender they became.

Of course, many transgender people see discrimination of all sorts. A 1996–1997 national study in the Journal of Homosexuality found that 37 percent of transgendered individuals surveyed had experienced employment discrimination. Even in San Francisco, with a larger than average transgendered community, a 2006 survey of 194 members of the San Francisco transgendered community found: 40 percent of respondents believed they were discriminated against when applying for work, 19 percent experienced trouble in advancing in their company or department, and 18 percent were fired from a job due to gender identity discrimination.

Sexual Orientation 
If you are gay and you lose your job, then your partner will not be eligible for coverage on your COBRA plan. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act states that the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages, effectively preventing same sex partners from coverage under COBRA.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a proposed bill in Congress, which, if passed, will prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for civilian, nonreligious employers with over fifteen employees.

According to the Human Rights Campaign it is currently legal to fire workers based solely on their sexual orientation in thirty-six states. The eleven states that recognize the rights of gay and lesbian people in the work place are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

There is a prevalent myth that gay men make more money than straight men because they have the income of two men and often have no children. But a study by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Whittemore School of Business and Economics shows that the affluent gay stereotype may be nothing more than just that—a stereotype. The study found that gay men who live together earn 23 percent less than married men, and 9 percent less than unmarried heterosexual men who live with a woman. They found that gay men working in management and blue-collar jobs make less money than straight men due to discrimination by their employers.

However, when it comes to pay, lesbians are not discriminated against when compared to heterosexual women. Lesbians may have to deal with homophobia and negative attitudes but, when it comes to their jobs, they may actually benefit from the fact that they are less likely to leave work to have and raise children.

According to the American Obesity Association, “Overweight persons were frequently stereotyped as emotionally impaired, socially handicapped, and as possessing negative personality traits.” They source “Kennedy and Hormant’s (1984) investigation of the effect of social stigmas on decisions regarding employee discharge. They found that participants displayed more negative attitudes toward overweight employees than ex-felons or ex-mental patients.”

In their paper “Bias, Discrimination, and Obesity,” Rebecca Puhl and Kelly Brownell found that, “Overweight and obese job applicants and workers may be subjected to weight-based discrimination in employment. Numerous studies have documented discrimination in hiring practices, especially when the positions sought involved public contact, such as sales or direct customer service. Obese workers face inequities in wages, benefits, and promotions, and several studies have confirmed that the economic penalties are greater for women than for men. Overweight women earn less doing the same work as their normal-weight counterparts and have dimmer prospects for promotion.”

A recent Yale study found that, “Discrimination against overweight people—particularly women—is as common as racial discrimination.” In addition to not being hired or being discriminated against while on the job, obese people are sometimes denied health insurance.

Smokers are another group frequently discriminated against in the workplace. Everyone has the right to a smoke-free workplace. But is it okay for a company to fire an employee simply because he or she smokes? Many companies simply refuse to hire smokers. Smokers are less healthy and make more health insurance and disability claims. There are currently twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia which have laws protecting employees from being fired or penalized for smoking outside of work. Policies related to hiring and firing smokers, the obese, or anyone else based on health issues can fall under “lifestyle discrimination.”

The March 2009 AARP Bulletin Today article, “Age Discrimination Claims Reach Record High,” states that “older workers, hit hard by the recent layoffs and job losses, filed a record-high number of age discrimination complaints against private sector companies last year, the highest level in almost two decades.

“About 24,580 charges were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2008, jumping 29 percent over the 2007 total for age discrimination, and even higher than the 15 percent rise in discrimination charges overall, which include claims by race, sex, and disability.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that workers age forty-five and older form a large share of the long-term unemployed. Additionally, if older workers can find a new job, they can expect larger pay cuts. Older workers often get paid more, so companies can save more money by laying them off. Despite more experience, younger and cheaper workers are often chosen first. Potential employers aren’t supposed to ask the age of applicants, but can easily estimate it based on the date they graduated from high school or college. Consider not putting years on your resume; specifically the year you graduated high school or college. 

Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination
There are laws to protect us. Even if workers are discriminated against, they are often scared to do anything about it. Some people believe it will keep them from being hired in the future, or simply be too much trouble.

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