The 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution contains a crucial clause characteristic of and central to our American ideals of democracy. The clause stipulates that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”
Such a widely applicable clause of our nation’s guiding document carries with it a significant amount of weight. Used to justify judicial outcomes in monumental cases like Brown V. Board of Education, Loving V. Virginia and Griswold V. Connecticut, the 14th Amendment is generally used to legally defend victims of discrimination across identities, including those not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. This spectrum of discrimination spans race, sexual orientation and gender among a slew of others. Put simply, people are legally entitled to a respectable level of protection against an onslaught of discriminatory preferences.
The Wisconsin Legislature is proposing a bill that would widely standardize cases of workplace discrimination, moving the handling of such cases from city to state level. Additionally, the bill would bar local municipalities like the city of Madison from writing and enforcing their own employment discrimination laws.
Effectively, cases of workplace discrimination would be handled the same in Madison as they are in Eau Claire. On a surface level, this move does not seem all that problematic. Any reasonable and tolerant individual would agree that treating each statewide employee with the same level of protection makes good sense. Someone from Menomonie with the same credit score as someone from Milwaukee should be treated with the same level of consideration when it comes to employment.
Makes sense, right?
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Unfortunately, the benefits become more muddled upon closer inspection. At the expense of efficiency, both Wisconsin employees and employers would be surrendering precious time in order to adhere to new stipulations of standardization. Cases of employment discrimination constitute for 70 to 80 percent of all civil rights cases across the state. As such, their frequency requires swift action so as to avoid an over-saturation of such cases for the agencies that handle such complaints.
On average, cases of workplace discrimination take around 90 days to resolve at the city level. Should the move to state-standardized proceedings move forward, that process of resolution could take up to a year — time individuals suffering under the wrath of discrimination cannot afford to let pass calmly.
Presently, this all sounds like an issue of time and resource allocation and not one where equal protection would apply in the slightest. But worryingly, the bill isn’t quite finished tearing apart the current system of protections granted to employees in Wisconsin. As an added bonus to this already illogical proposal, one Republican-backed Assembly bill and one Senate bill would also eliminate 12 currently protected classes safeguarded from employment discrimination, said Department of Civil Rights investigator and conciliator Alyssa Riphon.
These 12 classes include gender identity, non-religion, homelessness, source of income, lack of a social security number, physical appearance, political beliefs, student status, domestic partners, citizenship, unemployment status and credit history.
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In essence — and yes, you’re reading this correctly — these classes would no longer be protected against workplace discrimination, meaning employees and employers cannot file discrimination complaints with these classes at the center.
There aren’t enough words to effectively summarize how truly problematic such legislation would be to Wisconsin’s workforce. Imagine being discriminated against for your gender identity, attempting to file a complaint and being told that category is not protected against discrimination. This ordinance has not been passed and Madison’s Department of Civil Rights Director Norman Davis and his team are “vehemently opposed” to it — and rightfully so.
On top of human rights reductions and a significant roadblock in efficiency, Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Somers, firmly believes the bill would increase income inequality and supersedes the authority of local leaders. The knocks against this proposition are clear and extensive and beg the question whether or not centralizing this sector of employment conduct makes any sense at all.
Does an effort to centralize these cases really take precedence over sacrificing the protection of up to 12 identities and elongating the processing period of the most common civil rights cases in the state by a multiple of four? It’s genuinely challenging to see any benefit to such an effort and for a party whose guiding principles claim to care deeply about the common American worker, it’s hard to overlook the clear contradiction.
Wisconsin workers deserve better. Removing protections against discrimination makes next to zero sense and to those this measure will potentially negatively affect, it effectively pardons targeted discriminatory behavior from employees or employers. What’s more, given the contents of the 14th amendment, it’s hard to see how excusing workplace discrimination is constitutional at all.
Republican lawmakers have for too long masked legislation that attack underrepresented identities as solely aimed at expediting administrative processes. It’s time to see past that thin veil of perceived progress and reveal this legislation for what it truly is: Backwards.
Lucas Johnson ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and strategic communications.