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Your Rights Family Responsibilities Discrimination

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Previously, employment discrimination against workers based on familial caregiving responsibilities was called "Marital Status" or "Family Status" Discrimination. This has since changed, and is now called Family Responsibilities Discrimination ("FRD") to more accurately describe the particular type of discrimination that may affect almost every worker, including married women, engaged women, single men, married men, parents of young children, workers caring for elderly parents or sick significant others.

Though most states do not have a statute on the books for family responsibilities discrimination, state courts have ruled that such discrimination is illegal in many circumstances [or is illegal when it constitutes sex discrimination or retaliation for taking family leave protected by law]. Currently, there is no federal law and only two state laws (Alaska and the District of Columbia) which specifically prohibit FRD. But this is not necessarily reason to fear. Instead, workers who face FRD can use other laws already on the books, such as federal and state anti-discrimination and family leave laws, and other legal precedents to combat family responsibilities discrimination.

This page provides answers to the following questions:

1. What is family responsibilities discrimination?

2. What are some types of discrimination that qualify as family responsibilities discrimination?

3. Why is FRD important?

4. Who is affected by FRD?

5. How are businesses affected by FRD?

6. What are the current laws governing FRD?

7. My employer asked me in my job interview whether or not I was married, and what my spouse did. Is this legal?

8. My company pays health insurance for all spouses, children, and domestic partners of my coworkers. I am single and don't have children or a domestic partner. Am I being discriminated against, since they receive more benefits than I do?

9. My coworker leaves early every Tuesday to pick up her kids, while I have to cover for her. I am not allowed to leave early on any day for appointments or other non-work commitments, unless I want to use leave time or have my pay docked. Is this illegal?

10. I am a single mother with a child, and am not married to my child's father. My supervisor, who is very religious, keeps asking me when I'm going to get married, and makes clear to me that she disapproves of me not being married. Can she discriminate against me?

11. I cannot work overtime every day because of my family commitments. My coworker, who is single and unmarried, works a lot of overtime. Can my boss favor her for an upcoming promotion?

12. Who enforces the law?

13. How can I file a complaint?

14. What are the remedies available to me?

15. How much time do I have to file a charge of discrimination?

16. More information about family responsibilities discrimination

1. What is family responsibilities discrimination?

Family responsibilities discrimination is employment discrimination that is based on workers' responsibilities to care for their family members. This type of discrimination may face pregnant employees, employees caring for aging parents, parents with young children or workers who have a family member with a disability. If these employees face unfair discrimination in the workplace based on responsibilities such as this, they may be experiencing FRD.

2. What are some types of discrimination that qualify as family responsibility discrimination?

Failure to promote pregnant women or women with young children;Penalizing workers who have legally taken time off to care for aging parents; and promoting single men over engaged or married women for fear that they will become pregnant and quit are all types of family responsibilities discrimination.

3. Why is FRD important

The EEOC recently published reports that highlight the ever-growing issue of employment discrimination facing family caregivers Seventy percent of U.S. households with children have all adults participating in the labor force.

  • Women make up 46% of the U.S. labor force, and most (81%) of women in the United States have children.
  • 25% of families take care of aging relatives.
  • 10% of employees are taking care of both children and aging parents.

With these statistics, it is clear that a large number of employees are either currently or potentially affected by employers who discriminate due to an employee's family responsibilities.

4. Who is affected by FRD?

If you have a job and a family caregiving responsibility, you may be affected by FRD. Women with children are most likely to encounter FRD: this group has been found to be 79% less likely to be recommended for hire, 100% less likely to be promoted, and offered at least $10,000 less in salary for the same position as a similarly situated male.

5. How are businesses affected by FRD?

Businesses are often unaware that the employment actions they are taking are illegal. Employers (regardless of outcome) are subject to high litigation costs and also face the risk of high turnover rates for not recognizing the needs of employees with certain caregiving responsibilities.

6. What are the current laws governing FRD?

Although there is no federal law, some states have adopted laws, and some categories of employees, like federal employees, may have protection.

  • Alaska Statute §18.80.220 prohibits discriminating against an employee based on "parenthood"
  • D.C. Human Rights Act §§2-1401.01, 2-1401.02(12), 2-1402.11, 2-1411.02 prohibits employment discrimination based on "family responsibilities"
  • Federal Executive Order 13152 prohibits employment discrimination against federal employees because of their "status as a parent."
  • Conn. General Statute § 46a-60(a)(9) prohibits employers in Connecticut from requesting or requiring information from applicants or employees relating to their familial obligations.
  • Over 55 localities prohibit employment discrimination based on FRD under different statutes (see above).
  • The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 prohibits marital and parental status discrimination. (See: http://www.osc.gov/ppp.htm, Federal Prohibited Employment Practices for more information)

7. My employer asked me in my job interview whether or not I was married, and what my spouse did. Is this legal?

While there is not a federal law that specifically prohibits such questions, most employers make it a practice not to ask such information to avoid being accused of unlawful practices such as sex discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, or invading an employee's privacy. A good practice for employers to follow is to not ask about any characteristic of the applicant that the law prohibits the employer from considering in making hiring decisions.

However, a company that has an anti-nepotism policy (which prohibits spouses or family members from working in the same company or department) may inquire whether you have a spouse or family member already working for the company.

If you are asked these questions, you may decline to answer. However, you may run the risk of offending the interviewer and losing an opportunity to compete for the job. You may wish to answer the question during the interview, and if you are hired for the job, later discuss the matter with the interviewer or the company's personnel office.

8. My company pays health insurance for all spouses, children, and domestic partners of my coworkers. I am single and don't have children or a domestic partner. Am I being discriminated against, since they receive more benefits than I do?

Unmarried or childless workers may lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year in employee benefits compensation. Many employers subsidize all or a large portion of health, dental, vision, and other benefits for spouses and families of married employees without giving similar compensation to unmarried and/or childless workers in some other form. However, in most states, this is not illegal discrimination, as marital and/or familial status discrimination is not against the law.

Even in states where marital status discrimination is illegal, several state laws have exceptions for benefits which permit employers to legally discriminate in the benefits provided. For more information, please see our page on state marital status discrimination laws.

One way to eliminate marital or familial status discrimination from employee benefits programs is to implement “cafeteria”-style benefits programs. In these programs, all workers, regardless of marital or familial status, receive the same amount of credits to be used for benefits, which allows them to pick and choose benefits best meeting their personal or family needs.

Giving domestic partner benefits to same-sex and heterosexual unmarried couples also helps eliminate some discrimination against unmarried workers who have a partner. Some companies have adopted an "extended family" benefits program to fairly compensate unmarried employees who live with a dependent adult blood relative.

While such practices may not be required by law, employers interested in hiring and retaining valuable employees may wish to voluntarily adopt such programs. If you feel you have been treated unfairly due to your family responsibilities status, you may wish to explore with your employer's personnel or human resources department whether additional options are either currently available or under consideration, and discuss with other workers whether they also object to the difference in benefits.

9. My coworker leaves early every Tuesday to pick up her kids, while I have to cover for her. I am not allowed to leave early on any day for appointments or other non-work commitments, unless I want to use leave time or have my pay docked. Is this illegal?

While this appears to be a form of FRD, it is probably not illegal. In most states, marital status or familial discrimination is not against the law. Even if your state does recognize these forms of discrimination as illegal, being forced to temporarily cover for another employee is not likely to be considered serious enough to succeed in a discrimination complaint. Many companies have adopted “flextime” or other “family-friendly” policies which make it easier for workers with children to balance work and family commitments.

If you still believe you have been treated unfairly, you may wish to discuss this situation with coworkers, your supervisor, or your company's personnel department to determine whether the company can adopt leave policies or practices that treat employees with and without children the same, or whether the department's work can be reallocated so that no one person is required to assume the burden of a worker's absence for family reasons.

10. I am a single mother with a child, and am not married to my child's father. My supervisor, who is very religious, keeps asking me when I'm going to get married, and makes clear to me that she disapproves of me not being married. Can she discriminate against me?

Discrimination against a single mother with a child because she is unmarried would appear to be a form of marital status and/or parental status discrimination. However, some courts have held that religious organizations or organizations working with youth may discriminate against employees who do not subscribe to the organization's principles, as long as those principles are applied to all employees. If such organizations have specific principles condemning premarital sex, they have been allowed to terminate unmarried pregnant employees on the basis that they were terminated for engaging in premarital sex. However, to avoid a valid claim of sex discrimination, these employers would need to demonstrate that they do not treat men who are known to engage in premarital sex differently than women who engage in premarital sex.

If you work for a non-religious employer, however, your employer may find it difficult to maintain a legitimate business justification for policies or practices that discriminate against unmarried women who are either pregnant or already have children. The personal religious beliefs of one supervisor in this situation would rarely, if ever, matter from a legal point of view, especially if other company employees had been treated differently.

11. I cannot work overtime every day because of my family commitments. My coworker, who is single and unmarried, works a lot of overtime. Can my boss favor her for an upcoming promotion?

While this may appear to be a form of marital status or familial discrimination, it is probably not illegal. In most states, marital status or familial discrimination is not against the law. Even if your state does recognize these forms of discrimination as illegal, your employer may argue that there is a business justification (other than discrimination) for giving your coworker the promotion, since it is going to the worker who has worked more hours and presumably has contributed more to the business. Moreover, your coworker may be feeling resentful because she is being asked to work more overtime because she is single and her commitments outside work are not considered as important as family commitments by your employer. If you are interested in advancing in your company, you may wish to speak to your supervisor about ways you can advance without working longer hours.

12. Who enforces the law?

Protections under state and local statutes are generally enforced by state or local antidiscrimination agencies, which may be called a “fair employment,” “civil rights,” or “human rights” commission or agency. For more information about your state and local agencies, see our page on filing a complaint.

If you are an employee of the federal government, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that will accept your complaint of marital or parental status discrimination. For more information on OSC, please see OSC prohibited personnel practices.

13. How can I file a complaint?

To file a complaint under state and local statutes, please contact your state or local anti-discrimination agency or an attorney in your state. For more information, see our page on filing a complaint.

If you are an employee of the federal government, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that will accept your complaint of marital or parental status discrimination. For more information on filing a complaint with OSC, please see: how to file an OSC complaint. You can download the form you will use to file a charge at: OSC Forms.

14. What are the remedies available to me?

For remedies available under state and local statutes, please contact your state or local anti-discrimination agency or an attorney in your state. For more information, see our page on filing a complaint.

For remedies available to federal employees, see OSC remedies.

15. How much time do I have to file a charge of discrimination?

Because there are many sources of federal, state, and local laws relating to discrimination based on marital status and parental status, there are too many different deadlines to summarize here. To protect your legal rights, it is always best to contact OSC, your state or local governmental agency, or an attorney promptly when discrimination is suspected.

16. More information about FRD:

Work Life Law: a Center of UC Hastings College of the Law
Equal Rights Advocates
A better balance: The work and family legal center
EEOC's guidelines for enforcement of unlawful disparate treatment of workers with caregiving responsibilities

This page was updated on May 31, 2010



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