Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an agency of the United States government dedicated to eradicating unlawful inequity in the workplace. The commission is bipartisan; appointed by the president of the United States, five commissioners and a general counsel set policy and endorse legal actions to prevent discrimination based on age, national origin, race, religion, sex, and, beginning in November 2009, genetic information. For many years, EEOC staff attorneys have been litigating cases that have had a major impact on concepts, theories, and legal principles relating to higher education. In light of the impact that the EEOC has on American higher education, this entry examines how it impacts activities at colleges and universities.

The EEOC enforces a variety of federal laws, including the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. Some of these laws apply to private and public employers, educational institutions, and governments at both the state and local levels; others apply to American corporations operating overseas as well as multinational corporations operating in the United States; still others apply to the federal government itself.

Individuals can file charges alleging discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age, and charges can include disparate impact, retaliation, harassment, or hostile work environment. After preliminary review to determine administrative eligibility, EEOC staff members investigate the matter by conducting equal protection analyses; if warranted, the staff members may recommend mediation or legal action.

In many ways, the history of the EEOC ties directly to the history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Consequently, some of the nation’s most important advances dealing with affirmative action have come through EEOC-initiated litigation. From its establishment in July 1965, and throughout its history, the EEOC has been involved in groundbreaking litigation, much of it setting notable legal precedent. Furthermore, in some of the earlier cases in the 1960s, the role of the EEOC was secondary insofar as it filed so-called amicus curiae (literally, “friend of the court”) briefs seeking to influence the outcome of litigation. The congressional desire for voluntary compliance with 1960s legislation designed to create an equitable work environment for all proved insufficient, because employers continued to discriminate against workers. In response, the Congress approved the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, which gave the EEOC authority to litigate. 

EEOC Litigation

The EEOC grew in size and strength as it undertook direct litigation. Some cases involved entire industries and led to multimillion-dollar settlements that, along the way, established significant and long-lasting effects on corporate, economic, and social environments. In the early 1970s, for example, the EEOC joined forces with two other departments of the federal government in a major case against steel manufacturers and a union, obtaining not only tens of millions of dollars in back pay for tens of thousands of workers but also mandating hiring goals and timetables. 

Other cases have had a much smaller impact, involving only one company and a few workers. By way of illustration, in the early 1980s, the EEOC obtained several hundred thousand dollars for just over a dozen workers forced to retire because of age; in the mid-2000s, it obtained more than $200,000 from two companies for three female produce workers victimized by sexual harassment and retaliation, and more than $50,000 from another company for one technology worker for pregnancy discrimination. Other cases have involved foreign nationals in a class action; in the late 1990s, the EEOC obtained a settlement for nurses from overseas who had been recruited to work in the United States for a specified amount of pay and then paid less than they were promised after they arrived. 

Still other cases have been brought against other government entities within the United States. The EEOC has sued different levels of government, including the federal, state, city and local levels, as well as school boards, in cases dealing with desegregation of school systems and institutions of higher learning. The cases have concerned a variety of cases on discrimination and other forms of inequity, and the EEOC has been successful in securing consent decrees as well as monetary or other relief. 

The EEOC also has been involved in a number of Supreme Court cases related to higher education, including cases dealing with the ADEA. This litigation has addressed important constitutional matters such as equal protection analysis, the Eleventh Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Some of the most important cases here include EEOC v. Wyoming (1983), University of Pennsylvania v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1990), Florida Prepaid v. College Savings Bank (1999), Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents (2000), and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (2007). Other cases involving the EEOC as a direct party relate to a range of issues including disparate impact, hostile work environment, and religious activities on campus. These suits have involved educational organizations such as the National Education Association and universities across the nation. 

Other EEOC Action

Despite a different public perception in some quarters, the EEOC is involved in much more than just litigation. For example, in 1997 officials expanded the EEOC’s approach by initiating an alternative dispute resolution program that has received a great deal of popular support as a result of its success. Moreover, EEOC officials carry out administrative duties, conducting monthly meetings at which commissioners not only plan litigation but also launch initiatives, issue memoranda of understanding, respond to national matters such as September 11 and Katrina, and administer internal matters such as considering recommendations, funding authorizations, and making budget allocations. 

Along with its other responsibilities, the EEOC engages in numerous other activities including data gathering, education, publishing, and other forms of communication. EEOC officials collect and promulgate a wide range of information, such as statistics on legislation, charges, enforcement, and employment in such areas as job patterns for minorities and women. EEOC officials regularly conduct trainings, institutes, workshops, and seminars while simultaneously hosting conferences and other types of outreach gatherings. Additionally, the EEOC provides speakers on a variety of topics, such as the ADA. The EEOC’s special initiatives include Youth@Work, E-RACE (Eradicating Racism and Colorism in Employment), and LEAD (Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities). The EEOC produces a wide range of publications, including those covering statistics and best practices, annual and other reports, news releases, manuals, fact sheets, resource lists, brochures, and other informational materials. At the same time, the EEOC produces posters and audiovisual materials such as public service announcements. Most of these resources are available in English, and many are obtainable in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and several other languages. They also are accessible for download in electronic format from the agency’s Web site. The EEOC even hosts a Fellows Program through which individuals can contribute to research on both discrimination and the workplace. 

Based in Washington, D.C., the EEOC has a network of district, field, area, and local offices throughout the nation. The EEOC also collaborates with dozens of Tribal Employment Rights Offices on Native American lands around the country. All of these user-friendly strategies increase public access, thereby making it easy for both employees and employers to get specific information, learn about their rights and responsibilities, and seek resolution to problems or conflicts by filing claims or by engaging in conflict mediation. All these approaches help the EEOC move toward its vision of a “strong and prosperous nation secured through a fair and inclusive workplace” that includes colleges and universities.

Raúl Fernández-Calienes

See also academic freedom; age discrimination; College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid; Equal Educational Opportunities Act; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; Quid Pro Quo; U.S. Supreme Court Cases in Higher Education

Further Readings

  • College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid, 527 U.S. 666 (1999). 
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2000). 35 years of ensuring the promise of opportunity. Washington, DC: Author. 

Legal Citations

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Pub. L. No. 90-202 (1967). 
  • Americans with Disabilities Act, Pub. L. No. 101-336 (1990). 
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352. 
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991, Pub. L. 102-166. 
  • EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U.S. 226 (1983). 
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: http://www.eeoc.gov
  • Equal Pay Act, Pub. L. No. 88-38 (1963). 
  • Florida Prepaid v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999). 
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-233. 
  • Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000). 
  • Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007). 
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Sections 501 and 505, 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 et seq. 
  • University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182 (1990).