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Norman Davis

City Civil Rights director Norman Davis said Madison should be able to adopt and enforce its own equal opportunity ordinances. 

A Republican-backed bill that aims to standardize employment laws across Wisconsin would prohibit local municipalities from establishing and enforcing their own employment discrimination laws.

In Madison, this would result in the elimination of a dozen protected classes, according to an analysis by the city’s Department of Civil Rights. Director Norman Davis said the department is “vehemently opposed” to the legislation.

“It’s the city of Madison's prerogative to adopt our own ordinances and to leverage our own resources to the protections of our residents,” Davis said at the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform hearing Jan. 10.

The protected classes that would be eliminated 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.

If the bill is adopted, individuals who identify in these categories could no longer be safeguarded from employment discrimination, Department of Civil Rights investigator/conciliator Alyssa Riphon said.

Additionally, the city could not enforce employment discrimination in Madison. Between 70 and 80 percent of all cases the civil rights department receives are related to employment, Riphon said.

By removing the city’s enforcement ability, Riphon estimated that the state would need to absorb over 100 cases, which would likely take longer to investigate.

“The Employment Standardization Act will have extremely detrimental effects on the rights of the city of Madison community,” Riphon said.

‘Patchwork’ employment laws

Republican lawmakers say the bill is an attempt to make employment rules across the state consistent. The legislation would also prohibit municipalities from requiring contractors to enter into labor peace agreements with unions and from creating their own occupational licenses.

Additionally, the bill would:

  • Create uniform regulations across the state for employment hours and benefits.
  • Give employers the right to ask for prospective employees’ salary histories.
  • Prohibit municipalities from setting a higher minimum wage than the state for contracted employees.
  • Set a statewide standard and prohibit local ordinances regarding wage claims.

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Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said municipalities have been using the current law allowing local governments to set a minimum wage for contracted employees as a “loophole to set wages based on politics and not market demand.”

“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.

The city of Madison and Dane County have taken steps to move toward a $15 minimum wage for government workers, and the legislation would affect municipalities’ ability to require particular wage levels for contracted employees.

“We do believe it would reverse the progress made on increasing pay for county contracted providers to $15 an hour, which is deeply concerning given the incredible work these individuals do for the most vulnerable residents of our community,” said Josh Wescott, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Somers, said the bill would increase income inequality and supplants the authority of local elected leaders.

“This is one more example of big government Republicans who think they know better than duly elected local officials,” Wirch said.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.