Discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 15 percent in fiscal 2008 to 95,402–the highest level since the agency opened in 1965, said spokesman David Grinberg. That is up from 82,792 claims filed the year before by workers who believe they were discriminated against because of age, race, religion, gender or other reasons.
During tough economic times, discrimination claims tend to rise because more people are losing their jobs and searching for new ones.
Job discrimination claims on the rise
[Grinberg] predicts that job bias cases may swell to more than 100,000 in the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1 due to “ongoing mass layoffs and scant hiring, among other factors.”
Preliminary figures to be released by the EEOC this week show that claims of age discrimination saw the biggest jump last year, up 28.7 percent to 24,582. Retaliation claims, in which employees believe they were fired or demoted based on their complaints of bias or other issues in the workplace, saw the second-largest increase.
Harsh economic conditions, the need by workers to justify or secure compensation for job loss and the frenzy to cut costs have created a volatile mix in the workplace, said Jim Sokolove, a pro-labor attorney in Newton, Mass.
Many workplace experts believe incidents of discrimination are probably underreported because many workers are reluctant to take legal action. Some workers fear retaliation or being blackballed from their industry. Others may be asked to waive their right to bring charges against an employer in return for severance pay. And proving bias can be a difficult and long process.
Workers sometimes assert bias claims out of economic distress, said Sarah Pierce Wimberly, a labor attorney for employers at Atlanta law firm Ford & Harrison. “People lose their jobs, and people get desperate.”
Tough times can lead to poor communication in the workplace, making it difficult for employers to make clear to certain workers that they weren’t doing a good job all along, Wimberly said. “So when they become a target of a layoff because of a slowdown in the economy, they don’t know why they were chosen over the guy in the office next to them. They’re left to guess, what’s different about me? My gender? My color? My skin? Or because I have this disability?”
While many bias charges stem from job loss, some workers believe discrimination is involved when their employers cut hours or pay.
And with more competition for available jobs, some job hunters suspect discrimination when they go on interviews and aren’t given an offer.
Bias in the interview process
Indeed, there may be something to their suspicions.
Eden King, assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University, recently completed research that shows individuals are less inclined to hire women or minorities during tough economic times.
A recent study she conducted with co-researchers found that both white men and white women favored a white male candidate over female and minority candidates when told the economy may be on the decline. But when told the economy was on the mend, white men and white women tended to favor a female Hispanic candidate over a white male, a white female and a black male.
“In good economic times, people know they are supposed to support diversity and will tend to hire a minority candidate to get affirmative action points,” King said. “But when times are tough, people tend to look out for their own group and isolate outsiders, and that’s when discrimination can begin to rear its ugly head.”