Construction industry and business groups are aligned against a bill they say makes it easier for people to file discrimination lawsuits and more expensive for companies.
“The timing of this is just bad,” said Jim Boullion, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin. “Companies are already trying to survive in tough times, and I think this just adds to an already difficult situation.”
The bill Wednesday emerged from the state Legislature and is on its way to Gov. Jim Doyle’s office. If the governor signs it, the bill becomes law.
The bill updates Wisconsin’s Fair Employment law by directing circuit courts to order people or companies to pay compensatory and punitive damages if found guilty of discriminating against employees. Right now, the law keeps discrimination cases within the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which rules on such cases and can force reinstatement of an employee, back pay covering two years before the complaint was filed and payment of legal fees for the victim of discrimination.
The state Assembly on Wednesday passed the bill after it earned state Senate approval Tuesday. Votes in both houses followed party lines with GOP lawmakers opposed.
The bill’s primary Assembly author, state Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said the bill started 10 years ago to make sure women earned equal pay.
But James Buchen, vice president of government relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said the bill now includes discrimination cases of almost any kind and opens the door to a flood of complaints entering the judicial system.
“People that engage in employment discrimination deserve what they get,” he said. “But in the system now, two-thirds of the claims are dismissed. It’s fraught with unfounded claims, and the concern is that trial, bar and personal injury lawyers may see this as a good way to make money.”
One AGC concern dealt with the original bill’s requirement a circuit court order the defendant in a discrimination case to pay to the court a fee equal to 10 percent of the amount of compensatory and punitive damages ordered.
But the final bill removes the surcharge. It also requires a discrimination complaint must show proof of malice or intentional disregard of an individual’s rights before the case goes to court.
Boullion said the changes help, but the update still is unnecessary.
“It still makes us nervous,” he said. “You don’t want to create a situation where you’re broadening the reasons for workers to be filing claims.”
But Sinicki said existing laws do not go far enough in preventing discrimination.
“There’s a reason groups like WMC are so against this bill,” she said. “The (Fair Employment Act) law on the books now has no teeth, so of course everyone likes it. Now that we’re not pulling punches, everyone’s worried.”
Buchen called that “substantial nonsense” and said if there are cases of employment discrimination, the remedy exists under state law.
“You get back pay and equal pay,” he said. “This just increases the potential for filing complaints, and companies can run into trouble because a lot of times it’s just cheaper to settle them out of court rather than defend them. This does not improve the situation with legitimate claims.”
Boullion agreed and said construction companies struggling to survive cannot afford the cost of settling frivolous lawsuits.
“This (bill) is just piling on,” he said.