Many of us know that the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits certain types of discrimination in the workplace, but there’s a lot more to the law of discrimination than that. A patchwork of federal, state and local laws are aimed at employment discrimination. Some of these laws at the local level go much farther than the federal law does.
Recently, the City Council of New York City voted on a measure that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s weight. The ordinance would prohibit employers and others from discriminating against people based on their weight in employment, housing, access to public accommodations and more.
The ordinance would also prohibit discrimination on the basis of height. A separate measure would ban discrimination on the basis of tattoos.
Understanding discrimination law
The key to understanding the laws against employment discrimination lies in the term “protected characteristics.”
Generally, employers can choose to hire or fire workers for almost any reason. They can discriminate between high-performing employees and low-performing ones. They can even fire an employee for no reason at all.
However, discrimination laws provide certain limits on this ability. For instance, the Civil Rights Act prohibits making employment decisions on the basis of a worker’s race, sex, religion or national origin. These are considered protected characteristics. Other statutes and court decisions have expanded the list of protected characteristics to include things such as age, handicapped status and sexual orientation.
The New York City ordinance will add weight to the list of protected characteristics.
To put it generally, these laws mean that if an employer chooses to fire, not hire or make other employment decisions about a worker because of the workers’ protected characteristics, — and not because of any legitimate business reason for the decision — then the employer has broken the law.
Of course, putting these laws into practice can be complicated for both employers and workers.