Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NAACP Conference: What everyone needs to know about employment rights

I attended the Saturday morning and afternoon portions of the three-day NAACP Tri-State Conference here in Salt Lake City at the Little America Hotel on September 24th, 2011. The group of conference attendees was much smaller than I anticipated. Although KSL advertised the conference as open to anyone, I gathered that most of the people there were those in leadership positions representing their NAACP branches.

Image taken from the web page advertising the NAACP Tri-State
Some details.

The workshops were conducted in a room I estimated to be about 30x40 feet. Attendees came and went throughout the day, but there were usually about 35 people seated in the conference room at once. I observed that there was an equal number of men and women. Attendees and presenters varied in age, anywhere from 20 to 80 years old. Although the NAACP is historically an African American civil rights organization, they are interested in a wide variety of civil rights causes, and
encourage persons of all backgrounds to join their membership. During a break between presentations I counted 19 black persons, 9 white, and 4 persons of other races.

Most people at the conference were dressed in business attire, but the atmosphere was friendly. Several people introduced themselves to me, and made me feel welcome. I sat next to Maxine Nichols, a graceful, mature, African American woman in a beige suit, who had the most beautiful gold-studded eye-glasses. She and I chatted about parking, Apple products, my blog, and her position as Ogden branch secretary. She was using a special kind of notebook computer I'd never seen before--it had a great microphone that allowed her to audio-record the presentations. I noticed the gentleman to my left was also using a recording device. Maxine's husband (a black man in a violet-toned suit) was sitting with friends at another table, but introduced himself to me later in the day.  He was an extroverted, gregarious sort that made others laugh. He seemed to me an upholder of tradition, and was clearly among old friends. At lunch he was the one standing up saying, "Aren't we going to have a blessing?" before the eating commenced. I overheard him and a friend singing before the afternoon presentations began; it was an old Doo-wop tune they said they had performed together decades ago.

And now, the serious stuff.

Of all the conference workshops I benefited from that day, I'm most interested in sharing information from the presentation on equal employment rights.

First, gender discrimination.

"Utah is 49th in the U.S. as far as equal pay is concerned," a presenter said. It was Krista Watson (white, middle-aged, long blond hair), representing the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That's the government program you can go to if you are a victim of wage or hiring discrimination. She was talking about equal pay for women--"49th" means we're almost the worst state in the country when it comes to pay discrepancy between men and women. She mentioned a few specific laws. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 protects against sex-based wage discrimination. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 says that every pay check is a potential act of discrimination, in other words, it's never too late to file a discrimination complaint about wage.

The most personally enlightening news-to-me Krista offered was about gender discrimination and pregnancy. She said that many people in Utah rationalize that paying women less, or hiring a male applicant over a female applicant is only fair, because most women can logically only be seen as temporary workers since they could at any time get pregnant and take a long maternity leave, or quit altogether to become stay-at-home mothers. However, the law protects a woman's right to equal hiring processes and wage regardless of her potential to bear children. It's even illegal for an interviewer to say, "Oh, I see you are married, are you planning on having children soon?" Wow, I really wish I had known this during some of my job interviews! The other day, I mentioned this to a friend who recanted a story of two female coworkers who were both fired because they were pregnant. They could have filed complaints with the EEOC.

I noticed that several men asked questions, and made comments during this portion of the presentation. It was clear that they were just as concerned about women's rights as I am. This was a pleasant surprise for me. I should have expected this at a civil rights meeting, but it's just that aside from my own husband, I have rarely heard men speak up about gender discrimination.

Krista reminded us that anti-discrimination laws protect men, too.

She then switched to religious discrimination. 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, color, sex or religion. Krista told a story about a boy who was not allowed by his supervisor at Blockbuster to wear a yarmulke to work, and explained that the law requires a workplace to accommodate employees regarding religious practices. I remembered that at the Islam presentation I attended a few months ago, the speaker mentioned that workplaces must accommodate Muslim employees who wish to have work off during their Friday prayer meetings. In my own religion (I'm a Mormon), Sunday, the Sabbath, is regarded as a day during which we should not work or cause others to work--but I know many Mormons who request to have Sundays off, get turned down, and feel they can do nothing about it. But I think they can do something about it. I plan to contact the EEOC to ask.

Sometimes discrimination is subconscious, but that doesn't make it okay.

Krista told a story about a study in which employers were asked if they would hire employees based on race. 60% said no. However, prior to the study, they had conducted a covert experiment. They brought a white man with a criminal record, and a black man without a criminal record interview for a job at each place of employment participating in the study. In an overwhelming majority of the cases, the white man was chosen for the job.


Apparently there has been some debate in courts about what constitutes a "disability." But Krista explained that that's not really the question anymore; it's more a matter of what happened, and whether or not discrimination occurred. Prior to a job offer, employers may not ask about a disability, unless they're asking about job-related disability during the job-offer interview.


The EEOC is also there to enforce laws that protect workers from age discrimination. If you are 40 years or older, and believe you have lost your job, or get a lower wage than others because of your age, you can file a claim with the EEOC.

Fear of Retaliation?

Even people who know their employment rights often don't file complaints when they should. Sometimes, they are concerned about retaliation--their employer filing a counter-suit or getting back at them furtively. But employment rights laws include provisions that protect you from retaliation.

At the end of Krista's presentation, she mentioned that the EEOC department has been experiencing budget cuts, and downsizing. Charles Taylor, the meeting moderator (an older black man) who had introduced Krista to begin with, suggested that we promote legislation that keeps government services like the EEOC intact. He was concerned, he said (speaking diplomatically) that "the other side" wants to cut public workers, but that this is a major problem, "because if there are fewer cats to catch the mouse, the mouse is gonna have the power."

I have attended many equal employment rights training meetings at my own past places of employment--but never had anyone really described the laws with such helpful details. My thanks go out to Krista Watson of the EEOC, and to the NAACP for putting together a great conference.

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