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Civil Rights and Small Businesses: What You Need to Know


Federal law fails to protect employees in smaller, privately owned businesses. Sometimes, state law picks up where federal law left off.

(Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography/Flickr)

Evil HR Lady at CBS Moneywatch received a question that reverberates in too many small offices today. A new, female employee is contantly questioned by management about her plans to become pregnant.

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There is a definite pattern here. In the employee’s own words, “There are about 15 employees in total and the turnover rate is quite high. There are very few females…” We smell a rat.

Evil HR Lady does a nice job of discussing both rude managers and possible illegal behavior for companies that have at least 15 employees. However, the rules are different for smaller companies.

Federal Discrimination Laws

On the one hand, the federal agency Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protects employees from discrimination on the basis of gender, including pregnancy.

However, a private employer is not subject to the EEOC’s rules if there are less than 15 people. The EEOC’s exact language is, “the business is covered by the laws we enforce if it has 15 or more employees who worked for the employer for at least twenty calendar weeks (in this year or last).”

Therefore, if the worker was employed in a private company with only 10 employees, her answer would have been quite different.

State Laws

Sometimes, state law picks up where federal law leaves off. Some of the fifty states have more state government regulation of small businesses than others.

If you work in a private company with less than 15 people, educate yourself regarding the laws of your state. The Department of Labor makes it easy for you to find your state’s information.

If you feel you have been discriminated against in a small workplace, you can contact your state’s Labor Commissioner.

Maternity Leave Benefits for Small Businesses

If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that only applies to companies with at least 50 people. If your employer is smaller than 50 people, your pregnancy may be treated like any other “disability.” You maybe protected from being demoted as a result of needing time off for birth, but you may not get to enjoy the extra time at home to bond with your child that the FMLA guarantees workers in larger companies.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever been treated different by an employer because you are a woman of “childbearing” age? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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