WASHINGTON -- The federal agency responsible for investigating employment discrimination charges reported this week that the number of complaints coming from workers and job seekers has hit an all-time high.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received just shy of 100,000 charges from citizens during the 2011 fiscal year, the most logged in a single year in the agency's 46-year history, according to a new report. The agency also managed to obtain a historic amount of monetary relief for alleged victims of job discrimination -- $365 million, the most on record.
The EEOC handles cases involving hiring and pay discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion and disability, among other factors. Christine Nazer, an agency spokeswoman, says the EEOC hasn't tried to account for the rise in complaints this year. "We really don't know why our charges increase or decrease, as we haven't conducted any studies," she says.
But employment discrimination experts say the growing number of charges has everything to do with the sputtering economy. With unemployment hovering around 9 percent and 13.9 million American still out of work, some of the less scrupulous employers have more opportunities to discriminate in their hiring.
The EEOC's numbers reflect the "severity of the economic downturn," says Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for workers.
"At times like this, when job loss makes workers especially vulnerable, employers bent on breaking the law are even more likely to do so," Owens told HuffPost in a statement. "The strong report the EEOC has released today underscores how critical it is for America's workers that we maintain robust laws and regulations to ensure protection of basic labor standards."
Employment discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC have generally been rising over the previous decade, with a pronounced spike during the weak economy of the last four years.
The tough job market has been particularly unforgiving for older workers, many of whom feel they're the last to be hired due to their age. Jobless Americans over 55 years of age have been twice as likely as younger people to be out of work for 99 weeks or longer during the downturn. To cite just one example of alleged discrimination, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Texas Roadhouse restaurants in October, claiming the steakhouse chain has been biased against older applicants in their hiring.
Laurie McCann, a senior attorney with the AARP, the powerful lobby for seniors, said discrimination charges filed with the EEOC tend to "mirror what's going on in the economy."
One stat not included in the new report is the number of job seekers who've alleged discrimination because they're unemployed. Many job seekers have been discriminated against simply because they're already out of work, McCann said, with online job sites allowing employers the unemployed that they need not apply.
But that practice currently doesn't break any federal laws, though President Barack Obama has proposed making such discrimination illegal for most employers.
There are currently 5.9 million Americans who've been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. Speaking specifically about age discrimination, McCann says the number of complaints probably won't drop until the job market turns around.
"We don't expect that to change until we really start to make inroads with the long-term unemployed," she said.