The EEOC reported that workplace discrimination charges reached near-record highs in 2009. According to the EEOC, there were 93,277 charges filed in fiscal year 2009 -- the second-highest level in its history.

TheEEOC’s fiscal year data, which ended September 30, 2009, reflects increases in certain types of discrimination and retaliation complaints. Notably, disability complaints increased by 10 percent, from 19,453 to 21,451; national origin complaints increased 5 percent, from 10,601 to 11,134; and religious discrimination claims increased 3 percent, from 3,273 to 3,386. Also, retaliation charges reached a record high of 2009, going from 32,690 to 33,613 over the span of a year. Meanwhile, although the number of age bias claims decreased from 24,582 in 2008 to 22,778 in 2009, it was still the second-highest total ever. The EEOC also reported that it recovered a record high of $294 million through administrative enforcement and mediation.

According to Stuart J. Ishimaru, acting chairman of the EEOC, “[t]he latest data tell us that, as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, the commission’s work is far from finished….Employers must step up their efforts to foster discrimination-free and inclusive workplaces, or risk enforcement and litigation by the EEOC.”

Employers will likely see similar rises in liability risks and activity in the area of discrimination and retaliation in year 2010, particularly in light of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which went into effect on January 1, 2009, and expands the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act by reversing or nullifying several Supreme Court rulings that significantly narrowed the scope of protection under the ADA. Similarly, the EEOC’s Fiscal Year 2010 Congressional Budget Justification includes, as the EEOC’s objectives for Year 2010, an increased focus on combating systemic discrimination (unlawful patterns or practices of discrimination which have a broad impact on an industry, profession, company, or geographic location) as well as charges raising priority, novel or emerging legal issues in the context of race discrimination.

To help manage exposure, employers should revisit their handbooks, policies, and day-to-day practices, and should take steps to make certain that their supervisors and human resources staff are trained to both identify and properly address potential discrimination and retaliation issues.