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On Tuesday January 10, 2023, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) publicly released its Draft Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”) for fiscal years 2023-2027. The SEP describes the EEOC’s top enforcement priorities, making it critical information for employers around the country.

The Draft SEP sets out the EEOC’s six subject matter priorities for fiscal years 2023-2027:

  1. Eliminating Barriers in Recruitment and Hiring;
  2. Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Persons From Underserved Communities From Employment Discrimination;
  3. Addressing Emerging and Developing Issues;
  4. Enforcing Equal Pay Laws;
  5. Preserving Access to the Legal System; and
  6. Preventing Harassment Through Systemic Enforcement and Targeted Outreach.

With respect to the first category, “Eliminating Barriers in Recruitment and Hiring,” the Draft SEP states the EEOC will focus on “the use of automatic systems, including artificial intelligence or machine learning, to target advertisements, recruit applicants, or make or assist in hiring decisions where such systems intentionally exclude or adversely impact protected groups.” The Draft SEP also expressly emphasizes the “lack of diversity” in both the construction and tech industries, noting the EEOC’s priority will typically involve systemic cases, though claims by an individual or small group may qualify for enforcement focus if it raises a policy, practice, or pattern of discrimination. Employers should note the EEOC’s decision to focus on AI and the tech industry demonstrates a heightened priority on remedying and preventing discrimination from automated and electronic screening tools used in hiring practices and employment decisions.

On January 31, 2023, the EEOC held a public hearing titled “Navigating Employment Discrimination in AI and Automated Systems: A New Civil Rights Frontier” where higher education professors, nonprofit organization representatives, attorneys, and workforce consultants prepared statements regarding the EEOC’s new focus.

The Draft SEP includes specific details regarding the types of hiring practices and policies that the agency seeks to scrutinize. For example, the EEOC aims to prevent employers from isolating and separating workers in certain jobs or job duties based on membership in a protected class. The EEOC plans to achieve this goal by identifying vulnerable workers for more focused attention. In addition, the EEOC will scrutinize practices which limit access to work opportunities, such as (1) job postings which either exclude or discourage some protected groups from applying, and (2) denying training, internships, or apprenticeships based on protected status. The Draft SEP also prioritizes preventing employers from denying opportunities to move from temporary to permanent roles.

As for the second category, “Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Persons From Underserved Communities From Employment Discrimination,” the Draft SEP expands the ”vulnerable worker priority” to include categories of workers who, according to the EEOC, “may be unaware of their rights . . . or reluctant or unable to exercise their legally protected rights.” These categories include workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, individuals with arrest or conviction records, LGBTQI+ individuals, pregnant workers, individuals with pregnancy-related medical conditions, temporary workers, older workers, individuals employed in low-wage jobs, and persons with limited literacy or English proficiency. The Draft SEP proposes that district EEOC offices and the agency’s federal sector program will identify vulnerable workers and underserved communities in their districts or within the federal sector for focused attention. Employers should be aware that the “vulnerable workers” focused on under this category may vary based on location.

The Draft SEP’s third category, “Addressing Emerging and Developing Issues,” includes a focus on (1) qualification standards and inflexible policies or practices that discriminate against individuals with disabilities, (2) protecting individuals affected by pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the newly enacted Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (3) employment issues relating to backlash in response to local, national, or global events, and (4) “employment discrimination associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.” The priorities for the EEOC’s COVID-19-related enforcement in this category include:

  • pandemic related harassment, particularly against individuals of Asian descent;
  • unlawful denials of accommodations to individuals with disabilities;
  • unlawful medical inquiries, improper direct threat determinations, or other discrimination related to disabilities that arose during or were exacerbated by the pandemic; and
  • discrimination against persons who have an actual disability or are regarded as having a disability related to COVID–19, including individuals with long COVID, and pandemic-related caregiver discrimination based on a protected characteristic

With respect to the fourth category, “Enforcing Equal Pay Laws,” the Draft SEP sets out a focus on pay discrimination based on any protected category. The Draft SEP also states the EEOC may use “Commissioner Charges and directed investigations” to enforce equal pay. Notably, the EEOC has been hesitant to use Commissioner Charges in the past, as they comprise of less than 1% of annual charge volume since 2015. However, Commissioner Charges may become necessary to identify and remedy discrimination based on artificial intelligence or machine learning, as outlined in the first category.

The fifth and sixth categories remain largely unchanged from prior EEOC SEPs. The focus for the fifth category, preserving access to the legal system, will continue to identify and target (1) overly broad waivers, releases, non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements; (2) improper mandatory arbitration provisions; (3) employers failure to keep proper records; and (4) improper retaliatory practices. As for the final category, the EEOC will continue to focus on promoting comprehensive anti-harassment programs and practices.

The EEOC will vote on a final version of the SEP following the public notice and comment period, which concludes on February 9, 2023.