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You’re fired. Now what? Critics say Missouri’s new workplace discrimination law won’t help

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Headquarters of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jefferson City.

It’s going to get more difficult next month for a worker in Missouri to prove he or she was fired because of their race, gender, age, religion or heritage.

A new law, which Gov. Eric Greitens signed June 30 alongside the state budget, was championed by Republicans, businesses and the state Chamber of Commerce. But opponents want to make sure Missouri’s workers understand what may be in store if they’re suddenly unemployed.

The law doesn’t sit well with Nimrod Chapel Jr., who heads the NAACP in Missouri and works as an attorney in Jefferson City.

He’s been a vocal opponent since February, when he testified before a House committee. Pineville Republican Bill Lant ordered Chapel’s microphone cut off after Chapel said the state would return to the days of “Jim Crow,” referring to the laws that stripped rights away from African-Americans.

This time, Chapel said, African-Americans won’t be the only ones affected.

“That pretty much includes everybody except people who are not disabled or perceived to be disabled, Caucasian males under the age of 40 that don’t have or espouse any religious convictions, and can’t readily be identified or linked to their heritage,” he said.

Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. testifies against the workplace discrimination bill in April 2017.
Credit File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. testifies against the workplace discrimination bill in April.

One of the law’s provisions bans employees from suing a boss or coworker for discrimination. They can only sue the company. That also worries Chapel.

“People will be emboldened with the knowledge that they as individuals can’t be held financially or otherwise liable in a civil court of law for the harms that they bring to other people regardless of how those allegations could be found by a jury,” said Chapel, who wouldn’t say whether the NAACP will sue over the law but noted that the group is discussing what to do.

Several women’s groups and activists also campaigned against the bill. Amie Breshears from Warsaw is a former elementary and high school principal. She sued her former employers in 2014 for paying her less because she’s a woman, but the matter was resolved before going to court.

Breshears said she fears the law will make it harder for older and lower-income women to stay employed.

“I never wanted anything that was somehow more than what other people got, I just wanted the same thing,” she said. “I hope that’s what all Missourians would want for themselves and for each other.”

The Missouri Supreme Court is responsible for the current definition of workplace discrimination, which says it can happen if a person’s age, race or other characteristics had even a minor influence on someone being fired. The 2007 decision came in a case of a Maryland Heights police officer with medical issues who was fired in part because was 59 years old.

But the law is changing thanks to Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington, who sponsored the bill during this year’s regular legislative session.

Romine’s chain of rent-to-own stores in southeastern Missouri is the target of a 2015 lawsuit that alleges the company wouldn’t rent furniture, cell phones and other products to residents from a predominantly black neighborhood in Sikeston. The plaintiff is a former employee who claims he was fired after raising questions about the alleged practice.

Credit File photo | Mallory Daily I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington.

That case has not yet gone to court, and will fall under the less-difficult standard of proof.

The stricter discrimination standard has lots of backers, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. President and CEO Dan Mehan said in a written statement that the new law will end “a decade-long period where Missouri was one of the easiest places in the nation to sue a company and win.”

None of the chamber’s individual members would speak with St. Louis Public Radio for the story, but St. Louis attorney Jerry Hunter did. He’s represented businesses that were sued, though he couldn’t discuss those cases. But he said he’s watched other lawsuits wreak havoc on small businesses in Missouri.

“I’ve heard horror stories where, under the old standard, even in cases where they didn’t feel they had discriminated against an employee, they pretty much still had to settle the case,” he said.

Hunter said those businesses felt it was cheaper to pay thousands of dollars to settle a case instead of risking a judge or jury sticking them with a higher bill, and that lawmakers toughen standards on par with other states. St. Louis Public Radio could not independently confirm that.

“So Missouri, the state legislature, is not outside of the mainstream,” Hunter said.

Chapel is advising people who think they may have been discriminated against to file suit before the new law takes effect Aug. 28.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:@MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.