SB 43 would make it harder for workers to win discrimination cases, destroy protections for whistleblowers
Jefferson City – The Missouri House has passed legislation making it more difficult to prove workplace and housing discrimination and sent the shameful bill – sponsored by a Republican Senator who owns a rent-to-own business that’s being sued for discrimination – to Governor Eric Greitens for his signature.
Senate Bill 43 (SB 43) – sponsored by Senator Gary Romine (R-Farmington) and carried in the House by Representative Joe Don McGaugh (R-Carrollton) – would gut the Missouri Human Rights Statute, which protects employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace based on their age, ancestry, color, disability, sex, religion, race, or nation of origin.
Romine owns the Show-Me Rent-to-Own chain of furniture stores in southeast Missouri. A Scott County lawsuit, filed in 2015 alleges that a supervisor at the chain’s Sikeston store routinely used racial epithets against a black account manager, who was told to “quit acting like a (racial epithet)” and that “black people are the worst to work with.” The lawsuit also claims the store contained a map with a circle around an African-American neighborhood and a note saying, “Do not rent to.”
SB 43 would not retroactively affect the case pending against Romine’s business but would make it harder for workers to win similar suits in the future.
Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis), read a passage from the lawsuit on the House floor while the bill was being debated.
“We’ve heard a lot of lawyers talk about the laws and how it reads and the intricate words,” said Franks, who is black. “...Well, the judicial system looks a little bit different when you look like me. That’s one thing that we can’t get away from.”
RETURN TO JIM CROW
A House version of the bill, sponsored by Representative Kevin Austin (R-Springfield) stalled in February after Missouri NAACP Chapter President Rod Chapel was cut off while testifying by committee chair Representative Bill Lant (R-Pineville).
Chapel called the bill “nothing but Jim Crow” during the committee hearing and has stuck by those statements in interviews since, arguing that it would allow legalized discrimination and return Missouri to the days before civil rights reforms.
WHAT THE BILL DOES
SB 43 requires workers who claim discrimination in wrongful termination lawsuits to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were fired. Current law requires them to prove only that bias was “a motivating factor.” Under SB 43, former employees would have to prove that bias was “the motivating factor” in their dismissal.
The bill also makes changes to the state’s whistleblower laws, including removing protections for state employees. It caps punitive damages a victim can be awarded in discrimination or harassment lawsuits and mandates those alleging discrimination can only sue employers and not individual employees or supervisors who may have engaged in the discriminatory or harassing behavior.
The Senate approved the legislation in March. The House didn’t take it up until the last minute, then rushed to get it passed before the May 12 close of session.
MAKING IT EASIER TO DISCRIMINATE
Critics say if Governor Greitens signs the bill into law, it will act as a shield for the perpetrators of discrimination, harassment and other wrongdoing, and make it virtually impossible for a victim of discrimination in Missouri to win in court.
“The message this will send is we want to make it easier to discriminate in Missouri,” said Representative Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin). “No two ways about it.”
Representative Brandon Ellington (D-Kansas City), said the legislation would “roll back a half-century of civil rights progress and re-institute Jim Crow in Missouri.”
REFUSING TO VOTE, APPEALING TO GOVERNOR GREITENS
Numerous Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Doug Beck (D-Afton), a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, refused to vote on the bill, saying that doing so would legitimize the self-dealing legislation.
Their refusal to vote was the functional equivalent of a “no” vote. The bill needed 82 votes to pass. It received 98.
“I am honored to serve the citizens of the 92nd District and it is my sincere belief that in voting on this bill, I am being asked to participate in a piece of legislation that dishonors the very institution I took an oath to serve,” Beck said.
“This legislation is entangled with a discrimination lawsuit against the very senator who is the sponsor,” Beck said.
“Unfortunately, the sitting senator has chosen to involve the Missouri General Assembly in the alleged unlawful affairs of his business.
“To even participate in a vote on such legislation would make this entire body complicit in the senator’s unethical act, and a vote on this legislation would be a violation of my oath to uphold the Constitution,” Beck concluded. “Such a vote would dishonor me, my constituents, and the Legislature itself.”
Democrats made one last desperate attempt to stop the bill May 10, when about two dozen House members gathered outside of Gov. Greitens’ office to deliver letters urging him to veto the bill.
Representatives each wrote their own letters stating their opposition to the legislation.
Franks said he hoped the governor who responded quickly to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in University City earlier this year would be the one behind the desk when the bill arrived.
“That’s the governor we’re looking for, the governor that stands against racism and discrimination,” Franks said. “We’re not looking for the Missouri Chamber governor, we’re looking for the governor that protects the people.”
The Missouri Chamber has been one of the main proponents of SB 43 and Greitens has signed several other big-ticket policies this session that the Chamber has pushed, most notably signing so-called “right-to-work.”
During last year’s campaign and since taking office Greitens has repeatedly said he wants to make the state’s courts more business friendly.
CALL THE GOVERNOR
There is still time to stop this wrong-headed, business-centric, self-dealing legislation.
Call Governor Greitens at 573-751-3222 and ask him to veto this awful bill.
(Information from the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missouri Times and St. Louis Public Radio.)