Why getting a job is difficult for educated black woman

December 03, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Martina Evans is suffering by degrees. She has a bachelor's degree in accounting, a master's degree in business, a certified public accounting license and a law degree, all from the University of Baltimore. So why has it been so tough to get a job?

She worked her way through college as an accounts processor for an insurance company. She was an intern for Judge Robert M. Bell, now chief judge of the state's highest court, and for U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove. She was a negotiator for the Maryland attorney general's office and worked as a staff auditor for an accounting firm while studying for her bar exam, and her academic record includes awards and fellowships and scholarships.

And, from all of this marvelous education, Evans, 33, had been working until recently for a temporary employment agency. She would fill in here, and fill in there, and wonder what had gone wrong.

Now, she says she knows. She is black, and she says this is the reason she failed to get a job she applied for last year. A temp agency had assigned her three months of work as a secretary with U.S. Fidelity and Guaranty Co., the insurance giant, and, while there, Evans discovered the firm was offering a full-time job -- insurance claims specialist -- that fit her qualifications. She applied for the position but was never invited for an interview. The job went to a white man.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it was all about race," Evans said yesterday.

So, last year, she hired veteran civil rights attorney Norris Ramsey to file suit against USF&G, charging racial and gender discrimination. USF&G says: Nonsense. It has asked a federal judge to throw the case out.

"The big corporations used to say, 'We'd love to hire black employees, but we can't find qualified black applicants,' " Ramsey was saying the other day, seated at his Maryland Avenue law office with stacks of documents from this case piled across a long table in front of him.

"Well, here's a woman with immaculate credentials, and she can't even get an interview. And the person they hired instead of her was a white man who hasn't got nearly her professional background."

USF&G's response, filed with Judge Benson Legg, is a legal sneer. In a request for summary judgment, the company called the suit "a calculated effort to distort the essential facts. (ELLIPSES) She has failed to identify any credible evidence" of discrimination.

Evans wasn't interviewed, says the company, because she hadn't passed the bar exam when she made written application.

"An interesting point," says Ramsey, "except that not everyone who was interviewed had passed the bar."

To which Bruce Harrison, USF&G's attorney, said yesterday: "That's true. The company entertained the possibility of hiring a person who was not an attorney. But its previous hires for the position" -- 11 hires over the previous two years, 10 of whom are white -- "had all been attorneys."

In any event, the company adds in its legal briefs: "An employer has the right to establish whatever hiring criteria it wishes."

Well, yes, if the criteria don't secretly involve discrimination by race or gender. We live in sensitive times, in which everyone points fingers at the Neanderthals at Texaco and wonders: How prevalent is such closet bigotry in the rest of corporate America?

And, when minorities are turned down for a job and blame discrimination, is it reality talking, or something else?

"It's a serious thing any time anybody makes a claim of this kind," Harrison said. "She wants to work, and she hasn't been successful. But the claim of discrimination is without merit. USF&G has 6,000 employees, and this is the only case of its kind that it faces. That's an extraordinary record."

Harrison said he did not know how many of those 6,000 employees are black.

"I feel violated," Evans said yesterday. "I've worked so hard -- I've sacrificed so much. It took 10 years of sacrifice and struggle to work my way through school and get my degrees, and this just feels like a slap in the face.

"Whatever you do, it's not enough. And now they talk about ending affirmative action programs, and here's the sign that opportunity just isn't there for some people the way it is for white men. We need protection. We need something to fall back on."

For what it's worth, she had more than her degrees. When her temporary assignment at USF&G ended, one company official wrote a letter calling her "reliable and well-organized, and had a professional demeanor even in the most pressure-filled instances. She had an award winning, congenial personality that enables her to get along well with everyone in our company and fit into the work environment."

In its defense, USF&G notes that it asked Evans to apply for a different position that was opening. She didn't want that job and turned it down. The company says its offer shows it wasn't discrimination that cost her the first job.

"She never complained or asked us why she was turned down for the first job," Harrison said yesterday. Evans says she was so certain it was a decision based on race, she was too embarrassed to say anything.

Several weeks ago, she opened a private law practice, which she is operating out of her home. She says it's "slow going for now."

Pub Date: 12/03/96

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