Employment discrimination is the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of other people at work, because of their membership in a legally protected category such as race, sex, age, or religion. Each state has passed laws and rules to protect your workplace rights: this page covers Pennsylvania employment discrimination. The purpose of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is to protect workers in Pennsylvania from unlawful discrimination in employment. Read below to learn more about Pennsylvania employment law and how the law protects you.
1. What kinds of discrimination are against state law in Pennsylvania?
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, age (40 and above), sex, national origin, non-job related disability, known association with a disabled individual, possession of a diploma based on passing a general education development (GED) test, or willingness or refusal to participate in abortion or sterilization.
2. How do I file a discrimination claim in Pennsylvania?
A discrimination claim can be filed either with the state administrative agency, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) or the federal administrative agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The two agencies have what is called a “work-sharing agreement,” which means that the agencies cooperate with each other to process claims. Filing a claim with both agencies is unnecessary, as long as you indicate to one of the agencies that you want it to “cross-file” the claim with the other agency.
The Pennsylvania anti-discrimination statute covers some smaller employers not covered by federal law. Therefore, if your workplace has between 4 and 14 employees, you should file with the PHRC, as the EEOC enforces federal law which covers only employers with 15 or more employees. If your workplace has 15 or more employees, you may file with either agency, unless your claim is based on a discrimination category not covered under federal law, such as possession of a GED diploma or participation/non-participation in abortion or sterilization, which would require you to file with the PHRC.
To file a claim with the PHRC, contact the office serving the county where the discrimination occurred (not necessarily the closest to where you live). More information about filing a claim with the PHRC can be found at the PHRC website.
Harrisburg Regional Office
To file a claim with the EEOC, contact your local EEOC office below. More information about filing a claim with the EEOC can be found at the EEOC Filing a Charge page.
EEOC – Philadelphia District Office
EEOC – Pittsburgh Area Office
EEOC has launched an online service that enables individuals who have filed a discrimination charge to check the status of their charge online. This service provides a portal to upload and receive documents and communicate with the EEOC, allowing for a faster transmitting period. Those who have filed a charge can access information about their charge at their convenience, and allow entities that have been charged to receive the same information on the status of the charge. All of the EEOC offices now use the Digital Charge System. If you file on or after September 2, 2016, the Online Charge Status System is available for use. The system is not available for charges filed prior to this date or for charges filed with EEOC's state and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies. The system can be accessed at the EEOC website. If you do not have internet or need language assistance, you may call the toll-free number at 1-800-669-4000. For additional help, you may also call the toll free number to retrieve the same information provided in the Online Charge Status System.
3. What are my time deadlines?
Do not delay in contacting the PHRC or EEOC to file a claim. There are strict time limits in which charges of employment discrimination must be filed. To preserve your claim under state law, you must file with the PHRC (or cross-file with the EEOC) within 180 days. To preserve your claim under federal law, generally you must file with the EEOC (or cross-file with the state agency) within 180 days from the date the discrimination took place. If a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination, then the deadline is extended to 300 days. For age discrimination claims, there must be state law that prohibits age discrimination and a state agency to enforce the law, for the 300 day extension to apply. However, as you might have other legal claims with shorter deadlines, do not wait to file your claim until your time limit is close to expiring. You may wish to consult with an attorney prior to filing your claim, if possible. Yet if you are unable to find an attorney who will assist you, it is not necessary to have an attorney to file your claim with the state and federal administrative agencies.
You may also wish to check with your city or county to see if you live and/or work in a city or county with a local anti-discrimination law, or “ordinance.” Some cities and counties in Pennsylvania (including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) have agencies that process claims under local ordinances (such as sexual orientation and gender identity claims not covered under federal or state law) and may be able to assist you. These agencies are often called the “Human Rights Commission,” “Human Relations Commission,” or the “Civil Rights Commission.” Check your local telephone directory or government website for further information.
4. What happens after I file a charge with the EEOC?
When your charge is filed, the EEOC will give you a copy of your charge with your charge number. Within 10 days, the EEOC will also send a notice and a copy of the charge to the employer. At that point, the EEOC may decide to do one of the following:
- Ask both you and the employer to take part in a mediation program
- Ask the employer to provide a written answer to your charge and answer questions related to your claim, then your charge will be given to an investigator
- Dismiss the claim if your charge was not filed in time or if the EEOC does not have jurisdiction
If the EEOC decides to investigate your charge, the EEOC may interview witnesses and gather documents. Once the investigation is complete, they will let you and the employer know the result. If they decides that discrimination did not occur then they will send you a “Notice of Right to Sue.” This notice gives you permission to file a lawsuit in a court of law. If the EEOC determines that discrimination occurred then they will try to reach a voluntary settlement with the employer. If a settlement cannot reached, your case will be referred to the EEOC’s legal staff (or the Department of Justice in certain cases), who will decide whether or not the agency should file a lawsuit. If the EEOC decides not to file a lawsuit then they will give you a “Notice of Right to Sue.” `
How long the investigation takes depends on a lot of different things, including the amount of information that needs to be gathered and analyzed. On average, it takes the EEOC nearly 6 months to investigate a charge. A charge is often able to settle faster through mediation (usually in less than 3 months).
5. How can I or my attorney pursue a claim in court in Pennsylvania?
If your case is successfully resolved by an administrative agency, it may not be necessary to hire an attorney or file a lawsuit (to resolve your case, you probably will be required as to sign a release of your legal claims). If your case is not resolved by the PHRC or EEOC, and you may want to continue to pursue the matter, you will need to pursue your claim in court. A federal employment discrimination case cannot be filed in court without first going to the EEOC, as discussed above, and having the EEOC dismiss your claim. This process is called “exhaustion” of your administrative remedy. Similarly, before you can proceed with a lawsuit based on your state discrimination claim, you must file with the PHRC.
Because Pennsylvania's state anti-discrimination statute does not permit the punitive damages (damages intended to punish the employer) allowed under federal law, and does not allow for a trial by jury, many Pennsylvania attorneys choose to file employment discrimination cases in federal court. A case filed in state court using federal law may be “removed” to federal court by the employer because it involves a federal statute, such as Title VII or the ADEA. Compensatory damages are not capped or limited under the state antidiscrimination statute, however, as they are under federal law.
The EEOC must first issue the document known as “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” or “Notice of Right to Sue” (Form 161) before you can file a case based upon your federal claim. A lawsuit based on your federal discrimination claim must be filed in federal or state court within 90 days of the date you receive the notice. (Be sure to mark down that date when you receive the notice.)
A lawsuit based on your state claim must be filed within two years of the PHRC's dismissal of your complaint, as long as your complaint was either dismissed or still pending within one year of the original PHRC filing date.
These deadlines are called the “statute of limitations.” If you have received one of these agency dismissal letters, do not delay consulting with an attorney. If your lawsuit is not filed by the deadline, then you may lose your ability to pursue a discrimination case.