JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A black senator from the St. Louis area who said she was fearful of reversing decades of hard-fought civil rights gains held the Missouri Senate floor for hours Wednesday while vowing to block a vote on legislation changing the state's workplace discrimination laws.
The 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 were found to have wrongfully discriminated, the legislation would tie punitive damages to a company's number of employees, with a maximum award of $300,000. Political subdivisions, such as city governments, would not be liable for any punitive damages.
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, said the motivating factor standard would make it more difficult for discrimination victims to get a trial or recover damages.
"This bill is taking away one of the fundamental issues that people of color and women have fought for so hard," she said. "I'm not sitting down. I'm going to use all my rights that I am given under the rules."
Figures provided by the office of Senate Democratic Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, show that 1,227 workplace discrimination cases were filed during the previous three years in Missouri. Sixty-two of the cases — about 5 percent — went to trial before either a judge or a jury during that time.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Chapelle-Nadal read facts from previous discrimination cases and also called Republican senators to the floor one at a time to ask them why they support the bill.
Republicans have said the Senate bill would make the state more appealing to businesses. Changes to the discrimination laws could affect what businesses pay for employment-practices liability insurance, a type of insurance that covers companies in cases of wrongful actions, such as discrimination.
Brent Butler, a spokesman for the Missouri Insurance Coalition, said rates for such insurance could decrease with the changes from the Senate bill because the motivating factor standard could make it less likely that employers would be sued for discrimination. The caps on punitive damages, however, would likely not affect insurance rates.
"The punitive damages are not really insured," he said. "Those are generally directly on the employer."
Democrats in the Senate also prevented the bill from coming to a vote last week. They said the legislation would give employers less incentive to prevent discrimination in the workplace. On Monday, Missouri Legislative Black Caucus member Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said Senate Democrats intend to block the bill "as long as it takes."
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar bill last year, which Republicans managed to pass despite similar Democratic opposition. Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in the Senate but not the House. There are no Republicans in the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.
Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, said earlier this week that it will eventually clear the Senate. He predicted that it will easily pass the House, where Republican leaders more often move to cut off debate and force a vote. Such a move to cut off debate is rare in the Senate, and Lager dismissed the possibility that Senate leaders would opt to do so. He said he was prepared for a Democratic filibuster on the bill.
"I've got nowhere to go," he said. "The will of the body will ultimately prevail."
The House also briefly debated a workplace discrimination bill Wednesday before setting it aside and quitting for the week. House Republican Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said he hoped Republicans could reach a compromise with Democrats, but the prospects of that remained uncertain.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus denounced the fact that the legislation was being debated on the first day of Black History Month.
"This bill was derived in greed, in discrimination," said Rep. Steve Webb, D-Florissant, chairman of the black caucus.
Jones said opponents were succumbing to "epithets and fears of the boogeyman" and insisted the legislation merely would make Missouri's law similar to federal employment discrimination standards.
"Our law punishes the job-creators in this state," Jones said. "This is a return to fairness, a return to equality, a return to a fair business environment that encourages businesses not to be afraid of getting rid of problematic employees who are destroying their workplace."