Protecting Wisconsin’s Workers from Discrimination

“What can you do if you are being discriminated against at work?” a constituent asked me early one morning. Within a month I had three similar questions. Different situations but they all led me back to Wisconsin’s law on fair employment.

A while back I used to work in Human Resources – it was our job to pay attention to how the company treated its workers and make sure everyone followed the laws protecting workers.

Most employers work hard at complying with the fair employment law. Part of my job was to train new managers and make sure they knew and followed the law.  I reviewed with them all details of the law including the questions a manager can never ask during a job interview (Are you married? How old are you?). People didn’t always realize certain questions are simply off limits in a job interview or work situation.

Since 1964 we have had federal law protecting workers from discrimination on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Subsequent efforts expanded the law to include age and disabilities.

But Wisconsin law stretches back much farther and is broader than federal law.

According to the Legislative Reference Bureau, back in 1919 Wisconsin outlawed discrimination against women. While the Americans with Disabilities Act did not pass until 1990, Wisconsin prohibited discrimination on the basis of disabilities in 1965. In 1982 Wisconsin passed laws banning discrimination in housing, public places and on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.

We also have laws that limit discrimination on the basis of a person’s marital status, military membership including the Reserves and the National Guard and a person’s prior arrest or prior conviction record. Employers cannot discriminate against an employee who uses a lawful substance (like tobacco) outside of work.

Once a constituent asked me about the legality of employer mandated DNA testing – this too, is illegal. There are a few exceptions including determining the safety of a worker who has been exposed to potentially toxic chemicals.

The Wisconsin law is not perfect. One problem is discrimination that does not result in job termination. Courts have determined to prove discrimination it is sometimes necessary to show a person lost their job. But not all discrimination results in job loss.

Other problems seem to be related to the evidence and penalties allowed. Other states have resolved some of the problems Wisconsin faces in enforcement and deterrence.

Anyone concerned about discrimination in the workplace can seek help through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.  The department’s Equal Rights Division enforces all laws relating to fair employment.  A complaint must be filed with the division with 300 days of the discriminatory action. 

The complaint is assigned to an equal rights officer to be investigated.  The investigator will gather information on the case.  The process may include attempts to resolve the case through settlement or it can proceed to a formal hearing.  At the discrimination hearing, both parties will present evidence and the Administrative Law Judge will issue a decision.  While resolution of some cases can take longer than a year, the division makes every attempt to act as quickly as possible.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact my office and I can help get you in touch with the Equal Rights Division.  I can be reached at Senator Kathleen Vinehout State Capitol P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 or 877-763-6636 (toll free).   Or you can email me at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov