Today I had the privilege of attending the 24th Annual Employment Practices Liability Insurance Program hosted by the American Conference Institute in New York City (I moderated a session on EEOC litigation).

Constance Barker, one of the five Commissioners at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave the keynote address at the Program. Her presentation was fascinating, and focused largely on the future enforcement litigation activities of the EEOC for 2016. As the tag line of the old E.F. Hutton TV commercial suggested, “when the EEOC talks, employers should listen….” Commissioner Barker’s views and pronouncements are important for employers in crafting their workplace compliance strategies.

Focus Of Possible EEOC Activities

Commissioner Barker noted that 2016 is apt to see the EEOC issuing various regulations and guidance as the final year of the Obama Administration winds down. As she said at today’s Program, “expect a lot of activity…” In addition to regulations on GINA, the ADA, and wellness plans, Commissioner Barker asserted that other guidance is likely in the areas of retaliation, joint employer liability, leave policies, and national origin discrimination relative to Muslim workers. Commission Barker advised employers to take a close look at the proposed retaliation guidance, which she termed was “huge, huge, huge…” In particular, she cited the guidance’s expansive view of what constitutes protected activity, and how even discipline over “do not discuss compensation” policies would constitute retaliation (on the premise that discussing pay is protected activity).

Systemic Litigation Targets

Commissioner Barker opined that the healthcare, restaurant, and manufacturing industries would see significant litigation activity in 2016. Moreover, race, gender, pregnancy, and leave issues will be “litigation hot spots” for those industries. With nearly 25% of the EEOC’s docket now focus on systemic litigation involving assertion of claims on behalf of groups of employees, Commissioner Barker said that “leave and accommodation policies” also will be prime targets for systemic litigation.

Commissioner Barker shared the view that certain leave policies are on the EEOC’s litigation radar screen, such as policies that cap leave at a certain number of days; policies that have no accommodation safeguards; “100% healed” policies; and policies prohibiting leave if a worker is not FMLA-eligible.

New Developing Areas

Commissioner Barker also predicted a continuing commitment by the EEOC to “develop the law” on joint employer concepts, LGBT rights, workplace arbitration, and protections for workers in the gig economy. She noted that various agencies – such as the NLRB – have been quite aggressive in expanding traditional notions of employer liability, and that employers should be mindful that the EEOC is sometimes aligned to those views too.

In broader terms, this squarely raises the issue of the proper role and responsibility of the EEOC. Should it enforce the law as written or expand the law to maximize the reach and public policies within employment discrimination prohibitions? Many critics of the EEOC have cited its litigation focus as further evidence that the Commission is an activist agency that is result-oriented and willing to do whatever it takes to pursue litigation enforcement strategies it deems appropriate.

This issue is sure to heat up further in 2016.