House now has bill to change Missouri’s definition of workplace discrimination | St. Louis Public Radio

House now has bill to change Missouri’s definition of workplace discrimination

Apr 10, 2017

Updated April 11 with accusations from Black Caucus over the bill sponsor — The Missouri General Assembly's Black Caucus is attacking a bill that makes it harder for fired workers to prove discrimination, citing a racial discrimination lawsuit that's pending against the measure's Senate sponsor.

If Senate Bill 43 passes, an employee would have to prove that, among other things, sex, race, religion or sexual orientation is the main reason for being let go. Currently, he or she has to prove it was one of a few factors. The bill has passed the Missouri Senate, and now is before the state House.

The Black Caucus is highlighting the suit filed two years ago against GOP Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington. He owns Show-Me Rent-to-Own, which is being sued for unlawful racial discrimination under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Romine’s bill would not affect the lawsuit because it already has been filed and is pending in court. But caucus member Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, accused Romine of “attempting to change a human-rights law on a matter than directly benefits his company.”

Romine did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

A former employee, Tracy Ranson, filed the suit about two years ago. Ranson, who is African-American, claimed that a company supervisor directed racial epithets toward him and treated him worse than workers who were white. The suit claims that Romine was made aware of the supervisor’s actions, but did nothing.

Daniel McMichael, the senior lawyer at the Kirkwood firm handling Ranson’s suit, said it is still pending in state court in Sikeston and is unlikely to go to trial before the end of the year. 

Republicans say that Romine's bill, which passed 8-5 on Monday out of the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform, will cut down on frivolous lawsuits. But Democratic Rep. Steve Roberts of St. Louis pointed out that it limits employees to sue only the company, not an individual.

“Let’s say you have a manager who engaged in this type of discriminatory behavior, was sexually harassing a woman in the workplace,” Roberts said during committee debate.

“Right now you can sue that individual, but this bill, the way it is written, would give that manager immunity,” he said. But those pushing the measure argue that someone who’s in that exact situation can file criminal assault charges.

Democrats and others, including NAACP state chapter President Nimrod Chapel, are concerned that the measure would signal the return of Jim Crow-type laws. Chapel had been silenced during a special committee meeting in February, and, after receiving an apology, was able to finish his testimony last week.

Legislators tried to make six amendments Monday. All of them failed, though, notably, one was not from Democrats hoping to kill the bill.  State Rep. Bill White, a Republican from Joplin, wanted to exempt hospital employees from being fired for refusing to help perform an abortion. He said the bill, as currently written, would strip away that protection.

“It was, in my opinion, not well-researched,” said White, who said he plans to vote against the bill in the full House. But fellow Republican Kevin Corlew of Kansas City argued that the older law would not automatically be overturned, adding that the courts have weighed in when a new law’s wording is considered vague.

If the full House approves the measure without amendments, it will go to Gov. Eric Greitens. It isn’t clear whether he’ll sign it.

Original story from April 3:

The head of the Missouri NAACP finally was able to finish telling lawmakers on Monday why he says a GOP-backed bill would bring back the era of Jim Crow.

In February, state chapter president Nimrod Chapel spoke at the House special committee on Litigation Reform against the bill, which would make fired employees have to prove that race, religion, sex or age was the main reason for his or her dismissal, not just a contributing factor. 

Supporters say it’ll protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits.

But the moment he said the bill would bring back  Jim Crow — legally discrimniate against African-Americans — Republican committee chair Rep. Bill Lant, of Pineville, ordered Chapel’s microphone turned off and said his testimony was over.

Chapel received an apology from House leadership and was told he’d be able to speak at a later date, which came Monday.

Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel testifies against Senate Bill 3 on Monday.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

“Some might say … ‘Well, you’re obviously here because this affects black people — it affects all people, all people,” he testified. “If you’re a human being in Missouri it’ll affect you. If you’re a man, woman, if you get to any age at all, I don’t care what color you are.”

Afterward, Chapel said he received the appropriate response this time, but believes that he would not have been able to come back if not for pressure from House leaders and the media.

Technically speaking, the hearing where Chapel’s microphone was turned off never did resume, because it was for the House version of the proposal, HB 552/550. Monday’s hearing was for the near identical Senate version, SB 43.

Jo Mannies contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport