Under a bill in the legislature, municipalities like the city of Madison couldn’t write or enforce their own laws about employment discrimination.
That would stop a national trend of “burdening employees and employers alike with excessive regulation," author of the proposal state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, has said.
But on WKOW-TV’s political talk show “Capital City Sunday,” Norman Davis, civil rights director for the city of Madison, argued that the legislation could create a greater burden on employers by taking up more of their time.
The bill would mean the state, rather than the city, would investigate Madison’s discrimination complaints. The state likely couldn't resolve those complaints as fast as the city, and that’s bad for the person lodging the complaint and the company receiving it, Davis said.
“It would take a lot longer. It’s very, very concerning to us,” Davis said.
The bills, Assembly Bill 748 and Senate Bill 634, would prohibit Madison from enforcing its existing equal opportunities ordinance as it relates to employment. That ordinance, passed in 1963, is the oldest municipal nondiscrimination law in the country, Davis said.
That ordinance includes 12 protected classes which would be eliminated if the bill is passed. They 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. These classes would not be protected from employment discrimination.
“The preemption at the state level would deeply cut the equal opportunities protections that we have,” Davis said.
It also means the city would not have the authority to enforce employment discrimination complaints. Employment cases make up between 70 to 80 percent of cases in the city’s civil rights department.
Instead, the Wisconsin Department of Workplace Development would handle employment discrimination complaints. That’s a problem, Davis said, because at the state level, “it’s just much more difficult to … find the door to file a complaint" at the state level and could take much longer to resolve the issue. He said the state process could take up to a year, while the city can resolve most complaints in an average of 90 days.
Davis said that shorter turnaround is good for both parties: the employee and the employer. This way, the employer doesn't have to work through a complaint over a year, “dragging down their resources.”
He said that the city of Madison is “here to help employers” and the discrimination complaint process brings the parties together to talk about the issues “in a very neutral way.”
The bill’s proponents argue that the law creates standardization across Wisconsin, which is particularly important for companies that work in multiple cities across the state.
Proponents of the legislation like Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, say it will "create a standard playing field for employers and to provide certainty to employees whether they are working in Milwaukee, Dane, Brown or Eau Claire County."
“If we didn't have this bill in place what could potentially happen is you have a significant patchwork of regulations that would be extremely cumbersome for employers to follow,” Kapenga said.
Davis offered a solution to this, which he said some employers already practice: simply adopt the Madison standards and protected classes, he said, and companies should be good to go statewide. His division provides free training, and said they would be “more than happy to educate them about the various protected classes and how they can prevent complaints within their organization.”
The city of Madison is lobbying against the bill, and Davis urged viewers to call their representatives to urge them to vote against it. But even if it passes, Davis hopes that the city will still be able to serve its residents in an efficient way.
His department has a “very strong relationship with the state,” he said, and is hoping to be able to “leverage those relationships.”
Although ultimate authority for investigations and enforcement would rest with the state if the bill passes, “we’re hopeful we could continue on a contractual basis to do these kinds of complaints, because the state just doesn’t have resources to be able to take the additional caseload,” he said.
The bill also standardizes regulations for employment hours, wages and benefits across Wisconsin.