Homelessness and Atheism May be the Next Protected Classes for Madison Employers to Consider

Most employers know about the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Department of Workforce Development, Equal Rights Division. These are the federal and state agencies that process complaints of unlawful employment discrimination under federal and state laws. But did you know that a municipality may have an established entity to address complaints of discrimination in violation of a local code?

Such is the case with Madison’s Equal Opportunity Commission. Madison is in the unique position of offering employees discrimination protections through its municipal code, Section 39.03 of the Madison General Ordinances. The Madison EOC works in much the same way as the ERD with a complaint, investigation, determination, and hearing. However, Section 39.03 offers some unique protections not found in Wisconsin or Federal law. For example, state and federal law protect individuals from discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, age, race, color, religion, national origin, and disability. Of course, state law offers unique protections in arrest and conviction record and marital status. The Madison EOC covers all of these as well. But the Madison EOC takes it a step further and also protects individuals on the basis of familial status, student status, physical appearance, political beliefs, and less than honorable discharge.

Recently, Madison Ald. Anita Weier announced a proposal to expand the protections of Madison’s EOC to include the homeless and atheists. This would prohibit discrimination in employment decisions on the basis of one’s status as a homeless individual or as an atheist. The homeless protections are new and unique to the Madison EOC. The atheist protections clarify at the municipal level what arguably already exists through state and federal law. If added and an employer is found to have violated Section 39.03, it may be ordered to pay lost wages, compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees. All are good reasons to pay attention to your local municipal code if you are a Madison employer.