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By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 1/11/2011 2:25:36 PM ET 2011-01-11T19:25:36

In the worst job market since the Great Depression, a record number of fired workers are not going quietly.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tuesday that it received more job discrimination complaints in the latest fiscal year than at any time in its 45-year history. In addition to getting almost 100,000 new complaints, the federal agency filed 250 lawsuits, settled another 285 suits, and resolved 104,999 private sector claims.

Those enforcement actions, mediations and other litigation cost employers a record $404 million in payments to workers filing claims.

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The agency cited a number of factors for the jump in claims, including greater diversity in the work force. But the brutal job market and dismal economy have played a major role, according to attorneys representing workers filing discrimination claims.

"There's nothing that stimulates employment litigation like a bad economy," said Ron Cooper, a former general counsel of the EEOC who is now in private practice. "People who have lost their jobs are a whole lot more likely to think about bringing a lawsuit than people who continue to be employed."

The increase comes as the commission has added more workers to handle the surge in new claims and clear a big backlog of pending actions. EEOC chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien said the agency has spent the past two years boosting its staff, reversing deep cuts during the Bush administration.

"Discrimination continues to be a substantial problem for too many job seekers and workers," Berrien said. "We must continue to build our capacity to enforce the laws and ensure that workplaces are free of unlawful bias."

The higher number of claims also comes as the commission spreads the word about employment laws to those who may be the subject of discrimination. The EEOC said it provided educational training and staged public outreach events to 250,000 people in the latest fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2011.

What is illegal?
Those sessions also helped workers sort out what types of layoffs may be illegal — a distinction that isn't always easy for a terminated worker to gauge.

"We get so many calls from people coming in saying that they had a personality dispute with the boss of some sort, or that they were loyal employees, " said Brent Pelton, a New York lawyer who specializes in employment law. "There's nothing we can do to help. Employees have to remember that they are employed at will and can be hired and fired at will so long as it's not based on race, gender, nationality, age or disability."

Pelton said the weak economy has also brought an increase in the number of fired workers owed back wages.

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"We have a significant number of cases involving companies — construction, restaurants, retailers — where employees are just willfully not paid overtime," he said.

Discrimination claims rose in every category and, as in past years, claims based on race, sex and retaliation were most frequent. Race discrimination claims rose 7 percent, while retaliation claims jumped 8 percent.

Disability bias claims posted the biggest jump in the latest fiscal year — up 17 percent, the EEOC said. That spike came shortly after Congress changed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2009, making it easier for people with treatable conditions like epilepsy, cancer or mental illness to claim they are disabled.

The unemployment rate for disabled workers is 14.3 percent, compared with 8.9 percent for persons with no disability, according to the most recent Labor Department figures.

Story: Jobless rate likely to fall further, but slowly

"Layoffs often impact people with disabilities first and more severely than others," said Robin Shaffert, senior director of corporate social responsibility for the American Association of People with Disabilities. "People are losing their jobs and they believe it's for discriminatory reasons."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Video: Age bias claims rise as job market sours

  1. Closed captioning of: Age bias claims rise as job market sours

    >>> many in the jobless ranks are doing whatever it takes to get back to work. still, they're saying despite their efforts they can't find jobs because there's too much bias in the workplace. last month the national unemployment rate fell to 9.4% overall. but a closer look at the stats showed a significant job loss happening across the board. and with more people unemployed, discrimination complaints have reached an all-time record high, topping off close to 100,000 last year. this week there's a fascinating article in "the new york times" written by katherine rampel. she joins us live in studio. do you think it's widely understood that a lot of employers think maybe the recession was a time to lean out house? certainly, well, i don't know about that particular. but it is certainly true with a huge glut of unemployed workers, they can be picky. they can be picky based on merit or other sorts of arbitrary concerns, whether their race or religion or agenda. if an employer wants an indian-american, 62-year-old, mother of six. they can find that.

    >> but isn't that putting in the same status of discrimination. there are so many talented people that are unemployed. instead of three people going after this one job, there's now 15, and maybe some people overqualified to begin with.

    >> well, certainly i a hear from workers who feel they are overqualified for the jobs they are applying for. the reasons is employers are systematically discriminating against their demographic group . an older worker thinks employers only want young people . a younger person thinks they only want older more experienced person. but when you get down to it, part of the problem is there's so few jobs out there period. it's not that any one particular group is being discriminated against necessarily, but everybody feels excluded.

    >> so it's certainly possible a lot of the claims could be legitimate. a number of complaints, let's talk about the perception of discrimination. if people feel they are under this perception of discrimination. what type of repercussion can they put on the person they feel discriminated against them. or is it just sour grapes ?

    >> well, certainly the number of charges being filed have been rising. we saw the same thing happen actually after the 2001 recession where a lot more people were claiming they were being discriminated against. perhaps because they already lost their jobs and had less to lose by accusing the previous employer of discrimination. the actual number of cases that the eeoc has pursued in court has remained about flat. even went down a bit last year 69.

    >> wihat are the chances they will move forward to prosecute?

    >> well, certainly there's a perception that the obama administration's group is more worker friendly than the previous administration. it is possible more charges will be pursued. usually most of the claims do not have probable cause. that the worker complaining they've been discriminated against was not actually a victim of discrimination.

    >> if we continue to see the unemployment rate go down to lower and lower, in your estimation do you think there's going to be this tipping of the scale, so to speak, in complaints coming forward about perceived discrimination?

    >> certainly the takeaway lesson for me as a reporter that talking to a lot of unemployed people. the perception of prejudice and the suspicion that other workers have an advantage in the workplace, this is pervasive. beyond the direct economical effects of what's going on with the very tight and tough job market , what are the social effects? when you have a lot of people wondering, well, i'm being excluded from a job opportunity because of that guy or that woman or that race. it seems there are greater concerns we should be worried about as opposed to the temporary economic effects.

    >> i can imagine it ramps up questions. you fear about your mortgage, your kids going to school, food on the table, gas in the car, all of that stuff. when you look at the jobs, the people complaining, were they white collar , blue collar , across the board?

    >> generally across the board. i hear this especially from older workers who have been displaced from jobs that are sort of on their way out. i've heard this from a lot of worker who is are in manufacturing, pink collar jobs, for example. women who have been in receptionist positions. those jobs have been going away as more and more of the tasks have been automated. certainly there's more frustration in certain groups than others.

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