There are a number of bills floating around in the Michigan Legislature that have the potential to make Michigan even less attractive to employers, the exact opposite of what lawmakers should be doing in the midst of this state’s economic crisis.
The Respect for Physical Differences Act (Senate Bill 458) would make it illegal for an employer to "fail or refuse to hire or recruit, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to employment, compensation, or a term, condition, or privilege of employment because of the individual’s body type, degree of physical fitness, or other physical characteristic." The Employee Credit Privacy Act (Senate Bill 461) would bar an employer, with certain exceptions, from inquiring about the credit history of an employee or potential employee.
Both bills allow disappointed candidates for new jobs or promotions to have immediate access to the courts, so the next time an employer promotes a good looking employee instead of a less attractive co-worker (or vice versa) or tries to confirm that a job applicant is a responsible sort of person who avoids serious trouble with creditors, that employer could find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.
It is true that legislators will sometimes introduce bills that they don’t seriously expect to see passed in order to win points with key constituents, and none of these bills have moved out of committee. But both of the above mentioned bills have 17 sponsors (out of 38 state senators), suggesting that there is a sizeable block of legislators that supports these changes.
Other bills would open up opportunities for lawsuits for discrimination on grounds such as:
The health of family members (Senate Bill 459). In fact, employers would generally be prohibited from inquiring about the health of an employee’s family members.
An employee’s political activity (Senate Bill 464).
An employee’s diet or smoking (Senate Bill 463).
All three of these bills have at least 10 sponsors, indicating they have significant support. More information on them and other pending legislation is available at www.michiganvotes.org.
There are genuine concerns motivating some of these bills and in some cases — a parent denied a job because he or she has a sick child at home, for instance — a more measured response might be appropriate. The problem with the legislation listed here is that it gives plaintiffs the right to sue immediately without giving the state civil rights department any opportunity to resolve the matter, based on the sorts of allegations that are easy to make and difficult to disprove, and without any penalties for the filing of frivolous claims. This is not a formula for bringing employers into the state.
Another legislative idea with the potential to discourage employers from locating in Michigan is a package of three bills (House Bills 4625, 4626 and 4627) that would make "comparable worth" the rule in the state.
The comparable worth package, which has already made it through the House Labor Committee, would amend the state’s civil rights law so that an employer must give equal pay for jobs that "are of comparable value in terms of composite skill, responsibility, effort, education or training, and working conditions." How exactly these often subjective criteria are to be evaluated and weighted is not described in the bill, but the legislation does create a nine-member "Commission on Pay Equity," which must include representatives of the AFL-CIO, UAW, National Organization for Women and The Michigan Women’s Studies Association, along with a pair of business groups and three state agencies.
Depending on how active the commission is, and what weight the state Department of Civil Rights gives their definitions, this commission could be in a position to dictate wages for employees across the state. In which case, employers will have one more reason to avoid Michigan: wage scales that have as much to do with the preferences of unions and social activists as with economic reality.
While it is not likely that any of these bills will ultimately be signed into law, they have all been introduced and either been passed out of committee or garnered a significant number of cosponsors, which is a troubling development. At best these bills represent a distraction from the vital task of reforming state government. At worst, they illustrate that many of Michigan’s political leaders still take a cavalier attitude towards employers at a time when jobs are scarce.
Paul Kersey is senior labor policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.