JEFFERSON CITY — Black lawmakers in Missouri, fearful of reversing decades of hard-fought civil rights gains, said Monday they will try to prevent votes in the House and Senate on a measure that would change the state's workplace discrimination laws.
A measure pending in the Senate would require workers who bring wrongful termination lawsuits to prove discrimination was a "motivating factor" — not simply a contributing factor — in the employer's action. The legislation also would apply to other wrongful discrimination actions, such as the denial of promotions.
In cases where employers are found to have wrongfully discriminated, punitive damages would be tied to the number of employees the company has, with a maximum of $300,000. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, would not be liable for any punitive damages.
House member Steve Webb, the head of the state's Legislative Black Caucus, said at a press conference that the measure would roll back decades of civil rights progress aimed at protecting minorities and people with disabilities from being treated unfairly at their jobs.
"Anything that brings us back a step toward discrimination is something we're not going to stand for," said Webb, D-Florissant. "Civil rights acts were put in place to protect people."
Democrats prevented the Senate bill from coming to a vote in that chamber after about five hours of debate last week. The stalling efforts were primarily the work of Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Robin Wright-Jones, of the St. Louis area, and Sen. Kiki Curls, of Kansas City. They said the bill's changes would give employers less incentive to prevent discrimination in the workplace.
Curls said Monday that Senate Democrats intend to block the bill "as long as it takes," even though there are only eight Democrats in the Senate and 26 Republicans.
"We realize what our numbers are over in the Senate, but some things come down to principal," she said.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar bill last year, which Republicans managed to pass despite similar Democratic opposition.
Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, said Monday that the governor's office had indicated that he will again veto the legislation. She also praised the senators who had blocked last week's vote.
The governor's office has so far declined to comment on the Senate bill. A call to his staff following Monday's press conference had not been returned at press time.
Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the Senate, but not the House. There are no Republicans in the Legislative Black Caucus.
The pending bill is similar to last year's, but makes changes to sections that deal with summary judgment decisions in court. Summary judgment allows cases to be decided before they go to a trial, if all of the parties can agree on the facts of the case.
Republicans have said the Senate bill would merely bring Missouri in line with federal job discrimination standards and could make the state more appealing to businesses. Sponsoring Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said in Senate debate last week that the "motivating factor" standard is too broad and that businesses lack certainty about whether they can be sued for damages.
Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, rejected that argument at Monday's press conference, saying that changing the discrimination law would not help the state economically.
"Missouri does have a higher standard and we applaud Missouri for having a higher standard," Jones said. "We don't know of any cases where a business has decided not to locate in Missouri or has left Missouri because of our higher standard."
Webb said the existing law is clear and fair to both business owners and workers.
"Employees who treat their workers with fairness and respect have nothing to fear," Webb said. "We do not feel that expecting businesses to treat people with dignity is asking too much. Let's not wait until (the bill) gets to the governor's desk. Let's fix it now. "