Federal job bias complaints climbed to record levels last year, led by a surge in workers claiming discrimination based on disability.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says charges of disability discrimination rose by about 17 percent to 25,165 claims. Overall, the agency received nearly 100,000 claims during the 2010 fiscal year, a 7 percent increase and the highest number in its 45-year history.
The spike in disability claims began in the months after Congress approved changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2009. The changes made it easier for people with treatable conditions like epilepsy, cancer or mental illness to claim they are disabled.
EEOC chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien said the agency has spent the past two years boosting its staff to cope with the growing number of claims and curbing the backlog of pending charges. Since President Barack Obama took office, the agency has increased staff levels that were sharply reduced 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 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. That disparity could be another reason for the high number of disability bias charges, said Robin Shaffert, senior director of corporate social responsibility for the American Association of People with Disabilities.
"Layoffs often impact people with disabilities first and more severely than others," Shaffert said. "People are losing their jobs and they believe it's for discriminatory reasons."
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.
The EEOC said the increase may be due to many factors, including economic conditions, greater diversity, demographic shifts or greater awareness of the law.
Ron Cooper, a former general counsel of the EEOC who now works in private practice, said continuing economic struggles probably play a major role in fueling discrimination claims.
"There's nothing that stimulates employment litigation like a bad economy," Cooper said. "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."
Through enforcement actions, mediations and other litigation, the EEOC last year secured more than $404 million from employers to benefit workers who claimed discrimination the most in the agency's history.