Government & Politics

Employment discrimination bill clears major hurdle in Missouri Senate

The Missouri Senate early Wednesday approved a bill that would make it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers.
The Missouri Senate early Wednesday approved a bill that would make it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers. File photo

A bill that would make it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers won initial approval early Wednesday morning in the Missouri Senate.

Shortly after 2 a.m., the Senate approved a scaled-back version of the legislation that requires workers who claim discrimination in wrongful termination lawsuits to prove that bias was a “motivating” factor. The current standard requires them to prove only that it was a “contributing” factor.

Senate Republicans originally were pushing for a requirement that workers prove that they were fired solely because of their race, religion, gender or other protected status. But Democrats made it clear they had no intention of ending a filibuster, forcing a compromise.

Also removed from the bill was a provision prohibiting state employees from being awarded punitive damages in discrimination or harassment lawsuits. Critics panned the idea, especially in light of the fact that a spate of lawsuits alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation have been filed against state agencies in recent years.

The bill still limits punitive damages, scaling them to the size of the employer: $50,000 for employers with fewer than 100 employees, $100,000 for employers with 100 to 199 employees, $200,000 for employers with 200 to 500 employees, and $500,000 for employers with more than 500 employees.

The majority of the debate this week was focused on a proposed amendment by Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat, that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Missouri Human Rights Act.

Currently, people are protected from discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and age, among other categories.

Discrimination against gays and lesbians is not against the law in Missouri. People can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their apartments or thrown out of restaurants for being gay or being perceived to be gay.

In 2013, the Senate approved a bill similar to Schupp’s amendment on a 19-11 vote, with nine Republicans voting with all 10 Democrats in support. Of those nine Republicans, six are still in the Senate: Mike Kehoe, Gary Romine, David Sater, Rob Schaaf, Ryan Silvey and Wayne Wallingford. That bill died in the House.

Early Wednesday morning, Schupp’s amendment failed on a 20-10 vote. Only Silvey and Republican Sen. Caleb Rowden joined with eight Democrats in favor.

The Senate is expected to give the discrimination bill final approval this week and send it to the House.

“I wouldn’t call this a compromise,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis County Democrat. “I certainly hope the House kills this bill or the governor vetoes it. We shouldn’t be passing bills making it easier to discriminate.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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