Five Protected Employment Classes in Chicago

Five Protected Employment Classes in Chicago

Illinois is an at-will employment state. In most cases, employers can hire or fire their workers at any time for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.

However, employers can not act any way they please. Workers still have important rights, such as the employment discrimination prohibitions in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

To prevail in a civil rights claim, the victim/plaintiff must first make a prima facie case. In other words, the claimant must belong to a protected class and the claimant must have suffered adverse employment action (e.g. not hired, fired, or not promoted). The employer may advance a neutral reason for the action (e.g. we fired Sam because he was late for work and not because he was over 40). The claimant must then establish that this “neutral” reason was just a pretext for discrimination.


Employers can not base decisions on appearance, such as hair texture or skin color. That is true even though not all members of the same race have the same physical characteristics. Moreover, an employer can not follow a discriminatory policy. For example, a “no-beard” policy may disproportionately affect black men. These individuals often suffer from pseudofolliculitis barbae (severe shaving bumps).

National Origin

Many employers use “English-only” policies. These policies are legal in some cases, particularly with regard to waitresses, service technicians, and other customer-facing jobs. But a blanket policy obviously excludes Latino, Asian, African, and other people groups.

Sexual Orientation

This category originally applied only to gay and lesbian employees, but in 2017, the Seventh Circuit, which has a jurisdiction that includes Illinois, broadly interpreted Title VII as also applying to transgender individuals. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on this issue, but for now, Title VII protects all Ilinois employees who are somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. If the High Court considers this question, the Justices would likely make a similar finding, in part because of 1989’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. In this case, a woman who failed to make partner sued the accounting firm, which had denied her a promotion because she was not feminine enough. The Hopkins court declared that gender stereotyping was sex discrimination. Hopkins also held that mixed motives cases (partially discriminatory and partially legitimate decisions) were illegal.


Employees over 40 are in a protected class. However, the Supreme Court recently overturned the mixed-motives doctrine with regard to age discrimination cases. So, these claimants must prove that age was the sole reason for the adverse action. Because of this change, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission no longer aggressively pursues age discrimination cases.


An alarming number of employers blatantly base decisions on pregnancy. They refuse to hire pregnant workers because they do not want these individuals to immediately take extended leave. Paternalistic pregnancy discrimination cases are even more common. An employer might remove a pregnant woman from an assembly line or other high-paying job and reassign her to a lower-paying job.

Contact an Assertive Attorney

Federal law forbids a number of types of discrimination. For a free consultation with an experienced employment law attorney in Chicago, contact the Law Office of Mitchell Kline. After-hours visits are available.