WASHINGTON -- Two congressional panels this week conducted hearings on landmark employment-rights legislation that, for the first time, shifts the focus of debate to increased protection for women against discrimination in the workplace.
Under current law, women suing employers for intentional discrimination cannot ask for cash damages to compensate for medical expenses, pain and suffering and other alleged injuries related to workplace discrimination. The proposed Civil Rights Act of 1991 would grant women the right to seek monetary relief, just as victims of racial, ethnic and age discrimination are allowed to do now.
Opponents have objected to the bill as one that would lead employers to adopt sex- and race-based quotas to avoid costly lawsuits. They also have said that the damages section would encourage litigation.
Civil-rights lobbyists dispute that assertion.
"The primary but unspoken reason for their opposition to the bill is they don't want white women to have the same damages" as other victims, said Kerry Alan Scanlon of the NAACP Legal and Defense Fund. "This [debate on damages] flushes them right out of the quota hole."
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 is designed to overturn five 1989 Supreme Court decisions narrowing job-discrimination protections, as well as allow women to seek damages.
This week, witnesses for groups who oppose the bill said they wouldn't object to some limited remedy in sexual harassment cases. So did some members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the civil and constitutional rights subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, which held hearings Wednesday and yesterday respectively.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., introduced an administration-backed bill that would allow victims of sexual harassment to collect damages of up to $100,000 for the first incident and $150,000 for each subsequent act.
This week's witnesses backing the bill said assessing damages would provide strong incentives to employers to take steps to prevent discrimination, including commitment from the top, training sessions and monitoring mechanisms.