Balto. Co. targets racial bias Human rights board, court options explored

December 10, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

In its quest to quash discrimination in the community, Baltimore County's human rights board may finally be handed some tools to get the job done.

Prompted by complaints that the rapidly diversifying county has a toothless law against discrimination, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is pushing legislation that would strengthen the county's ability to crack down on bias in the workplace.

The law would focus on the county Human Relations Commission, which is empowered to investigate alleged bias in private industry -- but has no power to award financial damages. To win an award, a complainant would have to go to the state or federal government.

But a loophole exists: Neither the state nor federal government handles bias cases involving companies with fewer than 15 employees. In those cases, there's nowhere to turn in Baltimore County for damages.

The county is exploring two options -- handing the human rights board more authority to compensate victims, or granting alleged victims the power to go directly to court with a lawsuit.

"It's not fair that people working for companies with under 15 employees have nowhere to go," said Michael H. Davis, Ruppersberger's spokesman. "We're going to fix that -- one way or another."

The executive's proposal represents a small -- but significant -- step for a county whose laws provide far less punishment against discrimination than similar-sized Maryland counties.

While Baltimore County's human rights board cannot award financial damages, similar boards in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties can -- and do. The county's board can order a person be reinstated to a job or even promoted, however.

The proposal, to be introduced as part of the county's 1997 legislative agenda, comes after Sun reports spotlighted the disparity. And it comes after the Human Relations Commission and county League of Women Voters lobbied Ruppersberger for change.

In Baltimore County, complaints of racial bias account for roughly 40 percent of the nearly 200 cases filed with the Human Relations Commission in a recent three-year period, according to board statistics released this year. Most often, the alleged discrimination occurred in the workplace.

To some, it's long past time for change in the law.

"Any bill is an improvement," said Maurice Taylor, chairman of the county Human Relations Commission, who has argued for enhanced powers for his board through two administrations.

"Right now, the perception is that in Baltimore County, if you discriminate, it won't cost very much. And as a practical matter, it doesn't cost very much."

While Taylor lauds the county for moving forward, he is quick to put the progress in perspective.

"What we will be doing is catching up with the rest of the laws nationally and locally," Taylor said. "I think it will send a signal that Baltimore County is a place where the county government is concerned about fair practices in the area of employment."

Under the current law, Taylor said, the county can do little. "Although they can file the complaint in Baltimore County, there is little that the commission can do about it short of simply telling the employer, 'Stop, don't do that,' " Taylor said. "But we certainly can't compensate them under the current law."

Ruppersberger's proposal is being fine-tuned. But Davis said two options are being explored -- both focusing solely on cases involving small employers.

One option would have complainants go directly to the Human Relations Commission for damages. The other would be for them to go directly to court with discrimination lawsuits -- something they now cannot do in Baltimore County because there is no legislative authority for such suits.

"We're talking about a private cause of action for people who have been discriminated against who have nowhere else to go," said Davis. "We're looking at giving those people the right to sue in court." Still, Ruppersberger is reluctant to put the county human rights board on equal footing with those in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard.

His rationale: It makes no sense to have the county board duplicate the efforts of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- both of which can levy damages in large-employer cases.

"We're not going to duplicate what the state does," Ruppersberger said. "But if there are some loopholes, we're working now on legislation that would make sure we deal with those loopholes.

"If it's discrimination, we're going to make sure that we deal with it."

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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