Missouri NAACP leader Nimrod Chapel says making it tougher for employees to sue their workplace for discrimination targets those who are already excluded. A Missouri House committee is considering whether to require employees to prove that race, religion, sex or other protected status was a motivating factor for discrimination or being fired.
“I feel like we’ve lost some sense of ourselves as Americans and certainly as Missourians, to say with a straight face that the Jim Crow laws of the past are going to be accepted, talked about, debated in a public forum in Missouri is abominable,” says Chapel.
Farmington Republican Sen. Gary Romine is sponsoring the bill under consideration.
A similar measure was heard by the same committee in February. That committee is chaired by state Rep. Bill Lant (R-Pineville), who drew criticism for refusing to let Chapel finish his testimony.
Supporters of Romine’s bill say passing the proposal would improve Missouri’s business and judicial climates.
State Rep. Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis) says the bill would not protect employees who report illegal activities in the workplace.
“What’s the incentive for me to do the right thing,” asks Mitten. “There’s big disincentive, which would be being fired.”
“With your responsibility, you’re not going to stay with that company knowing there’s illegal activities,” says Romine.
Mitten shares her personal experiences with workplace harassment.
“How would you feel if your wife, mother, daughter, sister was told by their boss how their breasts looked in a certain outfit? How would you like it if any of those same people told you how they thought about you during their sexual escapades the previous night? How about being spanked? People like me, young mothers trying to put food on the table for a two-year-old kid, they don’t talk because they need the job. Under your bill that same girl would have even less recourse even if she decided to say something,” says Mitten.
Romine says his bill would better align Missouri law with federal standards. State Rep. Steven Roberts (D-St. Louis) says the proposal should include prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, just like federal law.
“I do not believe that should be part of the protected class that we have established up to this point,” says Romine.
“But you don’t think someone should be fired because of their sexual orientation,” asks Roberts.
“Absolutely do not,” says Romine.
“But they shouldn’t be protected though,” asks Roberts.
“They should not be discriminated against,” says Romine.
The measure would also stop workers from suing their colleagues and limit damages that could be awarded in such lawsuits.
St. Louis defense attorney Dan O’Keefe says Missouri must reign in on what he considers is a mounting number of frivolous lawsuits.
“I believe this reform is long overdue. I believe the Missouri courts have completely bastardize this area of law and I think they’ve turned on its head and I think our employers are paying dearly,” says O’Keefe. “I’ve watched businesses pull hundreds of jobs from this state.”
Romine’s bill has passed in the Senate and is awaiting a vote by the House committee.