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Jeremy V. Farrell


Deputy Chair, Litigation Department

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Pennsylvania expands anti-discrimination protections for employees

Jeremy V. Farrell, Esq.,, (412) 594-3938

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) prohibits employers with more than four employees from discriminating against employees based on certain protected classes.  Last month, a state agency approved changes to the law that will broaden the definitions of some of those protected classes. 

More specifically, the amendments broadened the scope of what it means to discriminate against an employee because of their “sex,” “race,” and “religious creed.”  Among other things, they include more explicit protections for members of the LGBTQ+ community, pregnant workers, and people with traditionally Black hairstyles and textures. 

Here is an overview of the ways that the amendments broadened the PHRA’s protected classes:

Protected Classes Expanded Definition Includes:  
Sex (LGBTQ+) Sex assigned at birth Gender identity or expression Affectional or sexual orientation, including both one’s actual orientation as well as the orientation others may perceive or presume the employee to have Differences in sex development and variations of sex characteristics  
Sex (Pregnancy) Pregnancy, including medical conditions related to pregnancyThe use of assisted reproductive technology Childbirth The postpartum period after childbirth Breastfeeding  
Race Ethnic characteristics Interracial marriage or association Traits historically associated with race, such as hairstyles culturally associated with race, including hair texture and protective hairstyles Persons of Hispanic national origin or ancestryPersons of any other national origin or ancestry  
Religious Creed All aspects of religious observance, practice, and belief  

 Even though some of the PHRA’s expanded protections categories are covered by federal law, these regulatory changes are important for Pennsylvania employers to understand and ensure compliance with.  For one thing, the PHRA applies to businesses with as few as four employees, so it reaches many companies too small to be governed by applicable federal law.  And the fact that the Pennsylvania chose to amend its regulations to explicitly protect these categories likely signals increased investigative and enforcement attention from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the agency that investigates employee complaints made under the PHRA.

Moving forward, employers should take steps to ensure that their Human Resources department and managers are aware of the expanded anti-bias protections. This regulatory update provides businesses with a good training opportunity, as well as a sensible time to revisit the equal employment opportunity policies in your handbook to make sure that your company’s practices and policies are keeping pace with the law.

January 31, 2023

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