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Workplace Discrimination: Who Is Most at Risk?



From women, Baby Boomers and the LGBT population to smokers, the obese, the mentally ill and those with strong religious belief, who is the most at risk for discrimination in the workplace? According to America’s politicians and some recent poll results, all of these demographics suffer from inequality in the job market.

The good news is that some of these numbers are decreasing. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 12 to 14 percent of Americans believe employers should be able to reject applicants who are significantly overweight. This is down a few percentage points from the last two times this poll was conducted (16 percent in 2005 and 17 percent in 2008). The poll results indicated that 40 percent of the respondents describe themselves as either “very” or “somewhat” obese.

In that same poll, the number of Americans who smoke (21 percent admitted to having at least one cigarette within seven days of the interview) is approaching 2013’s historical low of 19 percent. And though the nation is against hiring discrimination for smokers and the obese, 58 percent agreed that charging smokers more for health insurance is fine. Thirty-nine percent feel a rate hike is justified for insurance policies covering those who are significantly obese.

DiscriminationPresident Obama’s actions indicate that he feels strongly about the protection of the nation’s LGBT citizens and their risk for workplace discrimination. This week, he signed an executive order that extends protection against sexuality-based bias to the employees of federal contractors who work outside of states that have enacted their own non-discrimination laws. This particular order adds gender identity and sexual orientation to the protected categories among federal contractors (first approved by President Johnson in 1965). Most companies already have policies in place banning workplace inequality and unfair treatment based on employee’s sexual orientation. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have also passed legislation to this effect. Obama’s last executive order benefitting the LGBT community was in 2010 when he extended equal benefits to all partners of executive branch employees, whether they were same-sex or opposite-sex.

It should be noted that the July 21 executive order does not modify or impinge on the 2002 order signed by George W. Bush that allows religious groups to consider a candidate’s faith in their hiring decisions. Christian organizations like Catholic Charities, World Relief and World Vision banded together with pastors like Rick Warren, sending a letter pleading with the president to provide an exemption to religious organizations who hold federal contracts. The president has thus far not responded to that letter. Opponents like Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, hopes religious groups can still utilize President Bush’s 2002 order. The religious groups who oppose the bill are disappointed that the Obama administration continues to violate the “freedom of conscience” of their organizations that “provide relief for the endangered and the poor.”

In a Fox News opinion piece, Todd Sarnes argues about whether the Monday order “respects the diversity of opinion on the issues in a manner that upholds the dignity of all parties.” He asserts that America is a nation with many different beliefs about sexuality and believes a religious exemption would preserve equality by “not disqualifying them from obtaining contracts due to their religious beliefs.”

Research shows that mental disorders are the second highest area of complaint for charges of workplace harassment and discrimination. States like California have stepped up with anti-stigma campaigns to combat discrimination against mentally ill employees, going so far as adding a Mental Health Services Act to the 2004 ballot (Proposition 63), which passed. The bill, which was amended in 2012, imposes imposes a one percent income tax on personal income in excess of $1 million. Current anti-stigma programs for the mentally ill are being funded by the MHSA.

There are employment laws protecting men and women over 40 from age discrimination, but many recruiters and attorneys admit they are hard to enforce. If a hiring manager makes a comment to a recruiter implying that someone is “too old to hire” for a particular position, this still cannot be prosecuted, especially if the company hires another qualified candidate. The first person was not interviewed for the job and is therefore “not a candidate.” Many recruiters recommend that their older candidates lose weight, color their hair and/or limit job resumes to the last 10-20 years, simply to prevent age discrimination from coming into play.

Finally, policymakers have made recent changes to clarify the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in terms of pregnant women in the workplace. Emily Martin, VP and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, spoke about the issue on National Public Radio. Martin stated that under the previous guidelines, since pregnancy was not specifically stated and many employers did not see pregnancy as a disability, they did not feel an obligation to make any accommodation for pregnancy-related symptoms such as are made for carpal tunnel or gestational diabetes. These short-term disabilities are now included in the ADA guidelines and “employers must made a reasonable accommodation.” Additionally, Martin stated that parental leave was modified to be equally available to mothers and fathers, in terms of time off “to recover from the physical effects of childbirth.”

Sexism is still rampant in politics, as evidenced by a recent New York Times magazine cover asking if Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis could “have it all.” Her male Republican challenger, Greg Abbott, has not been asked this question. The 2008 election had extensive media coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s clothing, going so far as to describe “Clinton’s swollen ankles and pantsuits” or showing Palin in running shorts on the cover of Newsweek. Females in politics are simply not asked the same questions as male politicians. Rather than stances on policy, they are more often asked about family and how they will balance that with their jobs.

Is discrimination illegal? Yes, it is. Does it still occur? By all accounts, yes, it does. Each of the aforementioned demographic groups are in the risk pool for workplace discrimination and it is up to all of them to combat this behavior by recognizing and calling out inequality when it rears its ugly head.

Opinion By Jenny Hansen

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