Keith Sonderling, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), kicked off WorldatWork’s Workplace Equity Virtual Forum on a positive note.
Sonderling opened the event with an overview of claims the organization received in 2020, including those involving sexual harassment.
The number of sexual harassment claims the organization received dropped for the third year in a row in 2020, falling from more than 7,500 in 2019 to just under 6,600 last year; the lowest number of such claims in a decade, according to Sonderling.
“This is a remarkable statistic that we should all be proud of,” said Sonderling.
Sonderling also provided a breakdown of all charges the EEOC received in 2020.
For the sixth straight year, retaliation was the most frequently cited claim in charges filed with the agency, accounting for more than 55% of all charges filed, a statistic that Sonderling attributed to the fact that retaliation claims are often filed along with other underlying reasons for discrimination. Disability-related claims were the second most frequent, representing 36% of overall claims the EEOC received, followed by race (33%), sex (32%) and age (21%).
With regard to harassment, Sonderling urged employers to “adopt practices to help prevent workplace harassment.” These recommendations address leadership and accountability, harassment policies, harassment complaint systems and preventive training.
Employers should “set the tone,” he said, and “demonstrate a commitment to a harassment-free workplace by allocating sufficient resources for effective harassment prevention strategies.”
Employers should oversee these efforts by periodically reviewing and discussing preventative measures, complaint data and corrective action with the appropriate personnel, said Sonderling, adding that employers should have a comprehensive, easy-to-understand harassment policy that is regularly communicated to employees.
“This policy should include a description of prohibited conduct along with common examples” of what constitutes harassment.
“Employers should also inform employees about the harassment policy when they’re hired, during harassment training as well as posting the harassment policy handbook in common areas,” added Sonderling.
A comprehensive harassment policy should also have an “effective and accessible complaint system” that provides multiple avenues to file complaints and should be translated into all languages that the organization’s employees use, he said.
The EEOC commissioner also dove into what he described as important regulatory changes that may have been missed in the midst of the pandemic, but are “very relevant” to those in attendance.
In August 2020, for example, the agency issued guidance documents regarding growing concerns around opioid addiction and employment provisions.
The guidance was designed to offer “practical advice for employees and health care providers on providing reasonable accommodations” to employees struggling with opioid addiction, who are protected from disability discrimination if they are lawfully using opioid medication, are in treatment for opioid addiction and are receiving Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), or have recovered from their addiction.
In November of last year, the EEOC issued three documents intended to address the employment of veterans with disabilities, covering how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) apply to veteran employees and the organizations that employ them.
Upon reentering the civilian workplace, some veterans might have no idea that their service-related injuries could qualify as a disability, and might not know to ask about the appropriate accommodations, said Sonderling.
The new guidance “gives specific direction to veterans and employers on how to recognize and initiate such conversations,” he said. “It also sheds light on a veteran’s ability to identify as a disabled person. … For instance, if a veteran has a military disability rating or a disability rating from the Veterans Association (VA), that veteran is probably covered by the ADA.”
Sonderling also looked ahead at what figure to be the agency’s top areas of concern for the remainder of 2021.
In May of last year, the EEOC announced that the coronavirus pandemic would force the organization to delay EEO data collections until 2021. Employers now have until July 19, 2021 to submit EEO-1 data from 2019 and 2020.
The agency is also expecting an independent assessment of the quality of pay data collection by race, ethnicity and sex to be completed this year. When that report is finalized, the EEOC will analyze its findings to determine how to move forward with addressing pay disparities.
In January of this year, the EEOC also proposed two new workplace wellness rules for review. Those proposed rules remain on hold, however, as the incoming Biden administration quickly withdrew the proposed regulations until the president’s newly appointed EEOC chair, Charlotte Burrows, can review and approve them.
“Just stay tuned to the EEOC and what we do next on wellness,” said Sonderling.
In the meantime, the EEOC will continue to provide guidance and answers in the midst of COVID-19, he said.
“COVID has prompted many challenging questions about how employers can control infection rates while also protecting their employees’ rights under Title VII, the ADA and other federal employment non-discrimination laws. It was evident early on that the public needed important information on the interplay between COVID-19 issues and federal employment discrimination laws.”
To date, the EEOC has conducted 365 COVID-related events reaching nearly 52,000 individuals, and it will continue its efforts to guide employers through the pandemic and beyond, said Sonderling.
“The Commission has provided timely compliance assistance throughout the pandemic in an array of subject areas, including disability-related inquiries, confidentiality of medical information and medical exams, hiring and onboarding, reasonable accommodations, pandemic-related harassment due to national origin, race or other protected characteristics, furloughs and layoffs, return to work, age, caregiver and family responsibility, pregnancy and vaccinations.”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan.