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“It is hereby declared to be the public policy of this Commonwealth to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of their race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, disability, use of guide or support animals because of the blindness, deafness or physical disability of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals, and to safeguard their rights to obtain and hold employment without such discrimination, to assure equal opportunities to all individuals and to safeguard their rights to public accommodation.” —From the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act

Employers of four or more people must comply with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). The law is administered by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which also receives the initial federal discrimination charges made under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

In effect, the agency gets first crack at most discrimination cases brought by employees in Pennsylvania. In addition to the types of employment discrimination covered by Title VII (race, color, religion, sex, or national origin), the Pennsylvania law makes it illegal to discriminate against people who have a GED instead of a high school diploma.

Employees have 180 days from the date of alleged discrimination to file a complaint with the PHRC. Individuals or organizations can file complaints. For example, the American Association of Retired Persons can file an age discrimination complaint with the PHRC as long as at least one named member of the organization has been affected by the alleged age discrimination.

Once the PHRC receives a written complaint, the agency must investigate unless the case is clearly frivolous. Employers will receive a written copy of the complaint and will be asked to respond in writing. As soon as you obtain the copy, notify your insurance carrier and attorneys, who can guide the response.

Typically, the PHRC will schedule an informal conference to discuss the case and to gather evidence. Be sure to respond. Most cases are dismissed or referred to the EEOC for further action. Some cases are resolved informally at the PHRC. If the case is deemed without merit, the agency will send a letter to the employee letting him or her know the result and explaining options to sue.

PHRA may apply to smallest employers

Although very small employers (those with 3 or fewer employees) aren’t technically covered by the PHRA, a recent ruling for the first time cited a “public policy” exception that would allow claims to proceed against even smaller-size employers.

That case involved an office manager who quit her job and filed a sexual harassment claim under the PHRA. A lower court tossed out the claim, saying her employer didn’t employ the minimum number of four employees to be considered an “employer” under the law. But the state superior court let her case go to trial, creating an exception when a clear public policy (preventing harassment) would be subverted by not letting the case proceed. The court said the PHRA’s four-employee threshold should not be construed “as a tacit endorsement of sexual discrimination against their employees.” (Weaver v. Harpster & Shipman Financial, Pa. Superior Ct., No. 394)

Bottom line: Once you employ even one employee, you must familiarize yourself with the discrimination laws.

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Excerpted from Pennsylvania’s 13 Most Critical Employment Laws, a special bonus report available to subscribers of HR Specialist: Pennsylvania Employment Law.

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