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Employment and Discrimination: Exploring the Climate of Workplace Discrimination from 1997 to 2017

Human Resources

Across the U.S., workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information is illegal under federal law. Of course, while certain employers must follow federal laws and regulations regarding employment discrimination, specific state and local laws prohibiting discrimination in hiring and employment can vary greatly from region to region.

As an example, many states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Employers must be sure they are aware of the protected classes in the jurisdictions where they are located.

For a better understanding of employment discrimination in America today, we analyzed 20 years of data from the EEOC Enforcement & Litigation Statistics. Read on as we break down the more than 1.8 million complaints filed with the EEOC since 1997.

Concerns in the workplace

From 1997 to 2017 (the last year data were available), there were 1,813,213 discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC. In 2017, a majority of these complaints were categorized as retaliation (49 percent), race (34 percent), disability (32 percent), or sex (over 30 percent).

Sixty-four percent were officially dismissed as having found no issue after investigation, and over 18 percent were closed for administrative reasons. According to the EEOC, cases closed for administrative reasons may include the charging party deciding not to pursue their case, lack of communication, or a withdrawal request from the charging party.

More than 4 in 5 discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC between 1997 and 2017 were either dismissed or closed with no action taken in defense of the person claiming discrimination or bias.

Discrimination rates, by state

A total of 840,205 discrimination cases were filed with the EEOC between 2009 and 2017. Of these cases, the highest rates of discrimination complaints occurred in Southern states. Complaints of discrimination and bias in the workplace were highest in Alabama (63.6 complaints per 100,000 residents), Mississippi (61.5), Arkansas (53.3), and Georgia (51.1).

While race claims are often most commonly filed with the EEOC, they have the lowest percentage of success (15 percent) in terms of legal action or reaching a settlement. Some critics suggest these cases aren’t being investigated sufficiently enough and are often closed before determining whether discrimination occurred. In 2019, the EEOC had a smaller budget than in 1980 after being adjusted for inflation, and critics have stated not enough staff to handle the extremely high magnitude of complaints submitted.

Discrimination complaints between 2009 and 2017 were the lowest in Maine (2.6), Montana (2.7), New Hampshire (4.1), and Nebraska (4.2).

Descriptions according to the EEOC

As we take a more detailed look at employment discrimination in America, it’s important to understand the different types of discrimination people encounter. For some of the most common forms of discrimination, including age, color and race, equal pay, national origin, religious, and sex claims, we’ve included descriptions according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Now, we’ll explore each type of discrimination more closely, including which states have the highest percentage of complaints.

Statewide discrimination complaints

Alabama had the highest rate of employment discrimination complaints per capita, but it also had the most complaints regarding color and race (8.5), sex (9.8), and equal pay discrimination (1.1).

Even though pay discrimination based on sex has been illegal since the ’60s, critics argue it can be difficult to prove under normal circumstances. In Alabama specifically, no state law protects women from pay inequity, and The National Women’s Law Center determined in 2018 that white women earned 74 cents compared to every dollar earned by white men, followed by 57 cents for African-American women and 49 cents for Hispanic women. Mississippi and Arkansas also had the highest number of complaints focused on color and race discrimination as well as sex discrimination.

New Mexico tied with Alabama for the most complaints centered on equal pay discrimination and led the country from 2009 to 2017 for age and national origin discrimination complaints. In 2016, there were 20,857 claims of age discrimination filed across the country, making it the ninth consecutive year where employees alleged more than 20,000 cases of ageism in the U.S. workforce.

Making progress

While some states saw a decline in the number of discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC between 2009 and 2017, others saw dramatic increases. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe racism is a major concern and that may include its presence in the workplace. Despite a decrease in the number of color and race discrimination complaints in states like Nebraska (nearly 47 percent) and Oregon (36 percent), increases were much more substantial in states including Connecticut (almost 122 percent) and South Dakota (54 percent).

Similarly, the number of sex discrimination complaints between 2009 and 2017 more than tripled in New Hampshire, followed by a nearly 130 percent increase in Utah and 120 percent in South Dakota. Utah also ranked in the top five for the most complaints regarding age discrimination, color and race discrimination, national origin discrimination, and sex discrimination. Roughly 4 in 10 working women say they’ve experienced some form of discrimination at work, including those who earn less than men for the same job and those who experience repeated slights in the workplace.

Changes in workplace discrimination

You might think with federal laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the rules surrounding workplace discrimination would be cut and dry. However, employees should be cognizant of how discrimination still exists in their industry. Questionable hiring practices, unfair promotional structures, unequal pay, and retaliatory behavior are all signs of discrimination.

Between 1997 and 2017, there were over 682,000 discrimination complaints filed to the EEOC in just one category: color and race. While the total number of cases dipped slightly from 2002 to 2005, there was an intense spike in color and race discrimination charges in 2006 that continued climbing into 2010. The total number of color and race discrimination charges remains higher than any other category of complaints.

Sex (nearly 546,000), age (406,000), and national origin discrimination complaints (192,000) also accounted for the highest number of discriminatory claims filed with the EEOC between 1997 and 2017.

Frequent cases of discrimination

Analysts suggest there are many reasons why the total number of discrimination claims continues to rise. From heightened awareness of what’s qualified as discriminatory behavior to increased coverage in the news of what discrimination looks like, more people may feel compelled to bring their concerns to the EEOC.

People reporting certain forms of workplace discrimination may experience similar issues. Among religious discrimination claims, reasonable accommodation was cited seven times more frequently than in any other claim.

Discrimination based on an employee’s age can take many forms. Discrimination centered on age had the highest percentage of discriminatory terminations according to the EEOC. Studies suggest 61 percent of employees over the age of 45 have either personally experienced or seen discrimination at work, and that can include the way they’re treated by existing employers, when looking for new work, and when terminated from existing employment.

Final resolutions

Discrimination in the workplace may not be uncommon, but it can be difficult to prove. According to the AARP, nearly 2 in 3 employees between the ages of 55 and 65 cited age as a barrier to employment. Despite the high volume of complaints surrounding ageism, just 16 percent of cases focused on age discrimination merited a resolution for the charging party. At most, 22 percent of cases focused on equal pay led to a resolution, and fewer than 16 percent of cases focused on color and race experienced similar results.

Between 1997 and 2017, the average case of discrimination related to equal pay compensated the charging party just over $30,000. Combined, equal pay cases resulted in $147 million in monetary benefits. Both religion and color and race discrimination cases averaged the lowest overall monetary benefits — $13,000 and $14,700, respectively.

Protecting your employees

The U.S. Department of Labor enforces over 180 laws and regulations designed to safeguard workers from discrimination and bias, and the EEOC facilitates additional layers of protection for the same purpose. Still, despite federal, state, and local laws and regulations geared toward illuminating discrimination in the workplace, more than 1.8 million cases have been filed with the EEOC in the last two decades. While a majority of charges brought to the EEOC were either unfounded or closed for administrative reasons, there’s been no major decrease in the total number of discrimination complaints reported to the EEOC since 1997.

At Paychex, we believe in helping businesses establish effective HR practices and policies. With highly trained HR professionals, Paychex helps businesses just like yours streamline their HR services with powerful technology and compliance expertise — it’s a powerful combination that can help protect your business and your employees. Ready to learn more? Visit us at Paychex.com to get started.


The data presented in this project are from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Enforcement & Litigation Statistics. The most recent year of the data is 2017. It was accessed in February of 2019 for use in this project. The categories explored were age, color, race, equal pay, national origin, religion, and sex discrimination. Age discrimination reports fall under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) category in the original data. Equal pay discrimination falls under the Equal Pay Act (EPA) category in the original data.

The total number of cases was calculated using the “Charge Statistics (Charges filed with EEOC) FY 1997 Through FY 2017” data tables. The figure calculated only reflects the total number of individual complaints filed. It is possible for one individual to report multiple types of discrimination, and those multiple reports are not included in the total figure: 1,813,213.

For the graphic titled “Outcomes of Investigations,” the categories were altered for readability. These were the changes:

  • “Investigation found no issue” represents the EEOC’s “No Reasonable Cause”
  • “Closed for administrative reasons” represents the EEOC’s “Administrative Closures”
  • “Settlement” represents the EEOC’s “Settlements”
  • “Complaint withdrawn by charging party” represents the EEOC’s “Withdrawals w/Benefits”
  • “Considered for litigation” represents the EEOC’s “Unsuccessful Conciliations”
  • “Informal resolution reached between parties” represents the EEOC’s “Successful Conciliations”

Per-capita calculations per state were calculated using American census population data for 2017. The calculation is as follows: (Total number of discrimination reports per state/State population)*100,000.

Percentage change calculations for the graphic titled “Changes in Discrimination Complaints Over Time” are as follows: (Total number of complaints in 2017 — Total number of complaints in 2009)/Total number of complaints in 2009.

Average payout per charge calculations were done as follows: Total monetary benefits/Total number of merit resolutions per type of discrimination.

For graphics exploring the data by state, the available years were 2009 to 2017. For all other graphics, the data encompass 1997 to 2017.

The data were not statistically tested. Future research could also explore the current climate of disability, genetics, pregnancy, or retaliation discrimination complaints in the workplace — topics that were not explored in this analysis.


Fair use statement

For millions of people across the country, workplace discrimination is a real concern. The more people understand the laws and regulations, the more likely they are to report bias and discrimination. Help share the results of this study with your readers for any noncommercial use with the inclusion of a link back to this page.

This website contains articles posted for informational and educational value. Paychex is not responsible for information contained within any of these materials. Any opinions expressed within materials are not necessarily the opinion of, or supported by, Paychex. The information in these materials should not be considered legal or accounting advice, and it should not substitute for legal, accounting, and other professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant.