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COLUMN LEFT : Remove the Burden of Inequity : The 1990 Civil Rights Act is crucial to women trying to break into higher-paying jobs.

September 30, 1990|SHIRLEY M. HUFSTEDLER | Shirley M. Hufstedler, a former federal appeals court judge, is a lawyer in Los Angeles.

The Civil Rights Act of 1990, passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, would provide significant protection from workplace discrimination for, among other beneficiaries, thousands of working women. The Bush Administration persists in its threats to veto the act, repeating unfounded arguments that its enactment will result in hiring quotas and will create a "lawyers' bonanza." Those fears are groundless. If the President capitulates to scare tactics, he will deny a necessary shield against employment discrimination and deepen severe economic disadvantages women already suffer.

Women, like men, work because they and their families need paychecks to survive. Today, almost half of all workers are women, and 72% of all mothers of school-age children work outside their homes. Discrimination in employment causes grievous suffering for these women; the children suffer, too, because depriving mothers of the employment they need to support their families handicaps the children as well.

The Civil Rights Act of 1990 would protect women against illegal discrimination by reversing a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Ward's Cove vs. Antonio, which made it more difficult for women to challenge employment policies that are supposedly neutral, but, in fact, have an adverse impact predominantly on women and minority employees.

An example of such a policy is a police department regulation imposing height and weight minimums on all officers. Although policies of this kind may not seem discriminatory on their face, they often operate to exclude a majority of women (and men in some ethnic groups as well). Before Ward's Cove, a woman could successfully challenge that policy as discriminatory if she proved that the height and weight requirements barred most women from employment, and if the police department could not prove that the requirements were necessary for its operation. Ward's Cove greatly increased the burden of proof on the employee who challenges as discriminatory such employer policies and practices.

For women struggling to break into the ranks of traditionally male occupations, which usually pay considerably more than traditionally female jobs, the Ward's Cove decision struck a harsh blow. These women need the Civil Rights Act of 1990 to restore their ability to challenge unfair practices that keep so many high-paying jobs off-limits to them.

Spokesmen for the Bush Administration contend that overturning Ward's Cove would result in employers imposing quotas by sex and race. No evidence supports that argument. Employers did not resort to quotas before Ward's Cove changed the law, and there is no factual basis to suspect that employers will do so if Bush signs the 1990 act, restoring the situation that existed before Ward's Cove.

The 1990 act would give women further protection by allowing victims of intentional sex discrimination to sue their employers for damages. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides no possibility of recovering damages to compensate victims of proven sex discrimination who have thereby suffered loss or injury. A separate statute provides victims of racial discrimination with an opportunity to recover damages if they prove their cases.

In opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1990, the Administration contends that women will get "multimillion-dollar" damage awards and make lawyers very rich. The history of damage awards in race discrimination cases is directly to the contrary. The Administration offers no explanation for its contention that women, whatever their race or ethnicity, will be awarded huge damages when neither men nor women who have suffered racial discrimination have received such awards. What is it about working women that makes the Administration so nervous?

The President should focus his attention on the cost to working women, to their families, and to the national economy of allowing invidious discrimination to go unremedied and undeterred. The nation relies on the labor of millions of women and minority workers today, and the demographics tell us that we will rely even more heavily on them well into the next century.

If the President is not moved to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1990 because it is conscientiously right or because it is supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, he should sign it, because it is vital to the economic health and productivity of our country.

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