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What is a Protected Class in the Workplace?

Posted by B&F Contributor | Apr 01, 2023

Realizing that you're being treated differently than your coworkers can be extremely upsetting. When you're being treated unfairly and it's hurting your career and well-being, you're likely wondering if there's anything you can do to put a stop to it. While treating an employer unfavorably is a bad business practice in general, there are certain times when this behavior is illegal. Various federal laws protect employees from employment discrimination based on their membership in protected classes.

What are considered protected classes? The employment discrimination attorneys of Barrett & Farahany can help you understand what protected classes are so you can recognize illegal employment discrimination when it occurs. 

Legally Protected Classes

Protected classes are groups of individuals who share a common trait. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces several federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees based on various protected classes. These protected classes include:

  • Race and color
  • Religion
  • Sex, including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity
  • National origin
  • Age, for employees 40 or older
  • Disability 
  • Genetic information

Discrimination based on these protected classes is illegal even when the person discriminating against someone belongs to the same protected class. 

While employees in some states may have additional protections under state laws, this is not the case for employees in Alabama and Georgia. Federal civil rights laws protect employees in these states from discrimination. However, one exception is that the Alabama Age Discrimination in Employment Act (AADEA) allows employees to file a private lawsuit without filing an EEOC complaint first.

What Counts as Employment Discrimination?

Employment discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favorably than others. This is illegal in all aspects of employment, such as making hiring and firing decisions, promotions, compensation, and discipline. Employment discrimination is also illegal regardless of who is discriminating against others; this includes a coworker, supervisor, or someone outside of your company, such as a client or customer. Workplace policies may illegally discriminate against employees of a protected class, even if this discrimination was unintentional. Federal laws also protect employees from being harassed based on their protected class.  

Employees are protected from employment discrimination regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, seasonal, or temporary employees. However, the number of employees an employer has can affect whether or not federal laws apply. The Equal Pay Act applies to employers of all sizes, while most federal anti-discrimination laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to employers with 20 or more employees. 

Additionally, federal laws protect employees from retaliation for reporting discrimination, participating in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit, or opposing discrimination. 

Protect Yourself from Employment Discrimination with Barrett & Farahany

While employment discrimination is illegal, it still occurs at an alarming rate. Many employees throughout the country suffer due to discrimination in the workplace, and the employment discrimination attorneys of Barrett & Farahany can help if this is happening to you. Our team has worked with many employees to help them get the fair and equal treatment they deserve at work.

Our award-winning firm is the oldest and largest in the Southeast exclusively devoted to protecting employee rights. Contact us today for a free consultation.

About the Author


When you reach out to us, you will receive a complimentary consultation with one of our skilled Atlanta employment attorneys. During our initial consultation with you, we can help you to better understand your rights and will work with you to determine what course of action is in your best interest. We take great pride in providing assistance based on years of experience negotiating and litigating employment matters to protect employee interests. If you find yourself in need of dedicated legal representation, we are prepared to advocate on your behalf – our goal is always to protect employee victims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.