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Employment and Discrimination: Exploring the Climate of Workplace Discrimination from 1997 to 2018

We analyzed 21 years of data from the EEOC Enforcement & Litigation Statistics to better understand employment discrimination in the U.S. Read on as we break down the more than 1.8 million complaints filed with the EEOC since 1997.
Employee discrimination discussion

Across the U.S., workplace discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, pregnancy, and disability is illegal. Of course, while all employers must follow federal laws regarding employment discrimination, specific state laws pertaining to hiring and employment prejudices can vary greatly from region to region.

As an example, 48 states have drafted equal pay laws. While Alabama and Mississippi have passed no such legislation, Georgia’s law only applies to businesses with 10 or more employees. Despite both state and federal laws addressing discrimination based on race, studies show hiring bias against black and Hispanic employees hasn’t improved at all in over two decades.

For a better understanding of employment discrimination in America today, we analyzed 21 years of data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (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

Infographic showing outcomes of employment discrimination investigations

From 1997 to 2018 (the last year data was available), there were 1,889,631 discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC. In 2017, a majority of these complaints were categorized as retaliation (49%), race (34%), disability (32%), or sex (over 30%).

Sixty-four percent were officially dismissed as having found no issue after investigation, and around 18% 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.

Discrimination rates, by state

Infographic showing national employment discrimination complaints* From 2009 to 2018

A total of 916,623 discrimination cases were filed with the EEOC between 2009 and 2018. 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 (62.2 complaints per 100,000 residents), Mississippi (60.8), Arkansas (51.7), and Georgia (50.3).

While race claims are often the most commonly filed with the EEOC, they have the lowest percentage of success (15%) in terms of legal action or reaching a settlement.

Discrimination complaints between 2009 and 2018 were the lowest in Maine (2.5), Montana (2.6), New Hampshire (4.0), Idaho (4.3), and Nebraska (4.3).

Descriptions according to the EEOC

Infographic showing types of employment discrimination complaints explored

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 age discrimination, color and race discrimination, equal pay discrimination, national origin discrimination, religious discrimination, and sex discrimination, 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

Infographic showing states with the most employment discrimination complaints

Alabama had the highest rate of employment discrimination complaints per capita, but it also had the most complaints regarding color and race (8.3), sex (9.7), 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, no state law protects women from pay inequity.

New Mexico nearly tied with Alabama for the most complaints centered on equal pay discrimination and led the country (along with Alabama) from 2009 to 2018 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

Infographic showing changes in employment discrimination complaints over time

While some states saw a decline in the number of discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC between 2009 and 2018, others saw dramatic increases. Despite a decrease in the number of color and race discrimination complaints in states like Minnesota (nearly 69%) and Oregon (57%), increases were much more substantial in states including Utah (almost 104%) and Connecticut (56%).

Similarly, the number of sex discrimination complaints between 2009 and 2018 more than doubled in Nebraska, followed by a nearly 109% increase in Massachusetts and 80% in Utah. 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 due to their gender, including those who earn less than men for the same job, those who are treated as incompetent, and those who experience repeated slights in the workplace.

Changes in workplace discrimination

Infographic showing historical employment discrimination complaint reporting from 1997 to 2018

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. Shady hiring practices, unfair promotional structures, unequal pay, and retaliatory behavior are all signs of discrimination.

Between 1997 and 2018, there were over 710,500 discrimination complaints filed to the EEOC for 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 to climb into 2010. The total number of color and race discrimination charges remains higher than any other category of complaints.

Sex (570,360), age (422,866), and national origin discrimination complaints (198,689) also accounted for the highest number of discriminatory claims filed with the EEOC between 1997 and 2018.

Frequent cases of discrimination

Infographic showing discrimination type with the highest percentage of complaints for issues related to work environment, hiring, and firing

Analysts suggest there are many reasons why the total number of discrimination claims continues to rise. From heightened awareness of what’s qualified as illegal 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. In 2019, a jury awarded one employee over $21 million in damages after determining that her employer, a Miami hotel, violated her religious rights by demanding she work on Sundays and firing her for noncompliance. After filing her complaint with the EEOC, the organization issued the employee a “right to sue” notice, thus supporting her legal claim against the company.

Discrimination based on an employee’s age can take many forms. Discrimination centered on age had the highest percentage of discriminatory firings according to the EEOC. Studies suggest 61% 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

Infographic exploring the outcomes of discrimination complaints from 1997 to 2018

Discrimination in the workplace may not be uncommon, but it can be very 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% of cases focused on age discrimination merited a resolution for the charging party. At most, 22% of cases focused on equal pay led to a resolution, and fewer than 16% of cases that focused on color and race experienced similar results.

Between 1997 and 2018, the average case of discrimination related to equal pay compensated the charging party nearly $31,000. Combined, equal pay cases resulted in $157 million in monetary benefits. Both religion and color and race discrimination cases averaged the lowest overall monetary benefits — $13,000 and $14,900, respectively.

Protecting your employees

The U.S. Department of Labor enforces roughly 180 laws designed to safeguard workers from discrimination and bias, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission facilitates additional layers of protection for the same purpose. Still, despite federal and state laws 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.

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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 2018. It was accessed in July 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 2018” 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: 1,889,631.

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 2018. 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 2018 - 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 2018. For all other graphics, the data encompass 1997 to 2018.

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, 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.

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* Este contenido es solo para fines educativos, no tiene por objeto proporcionar asesoría jurídica específica y no debe utilizarse en sustitución de la asesoría jurídica de un abogado u otro profesional calificado. Es posible que la información no refleje los cambios más recientes en la legislación, la cual podrá modificarse sin previo aviso y no se garantiza que esté completa, correcta o actualizada.

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