No retreat on job opportunity

While recognizing the legitimate interest of the US business community in freeing up firms from excessive paperwork -- in other words, "red tape" -- it is paramount that the federal government not renege on its obligation to women and minorities to ensure equal access to jobs involving federal monies.

In the case of government contracts, after all, employers receive taxpayer dollars -- collected from all citizens irrespective of color or gender.

Consequently, how those dollars are disbursed, and to whom, takes on a different aspect than in the free market economy, where contracts involve private funds.

The principle involved here is directly relevant to the administration's new proposal to ease paperwork and other antidiscrimination requirements for federal contractors. Currently, affirmative action paperwork requirements apply to all contractors with 50 employees and contracts worth $50,000 or more. The administration is proposing reducing the compliance rule for something like 75 percent of all firms in the US by requiring written compliance plans from only those contractors having 250 or more employees and contracts of at least $1 million. The new regulations also would reduce the government's definition of the propr number of minorities to be hired by contractors in different parts of the US.* Despite the proposed changes, according to Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, affirmative action protection will be retained for nearly 77 percent of all women and members of minority groups.

Meanwhile, all employers having contracts of $10,000 or more, Mr. Donovan points out, are still required to hire and promote women and minorities, whether or not they file written affirmative action reports.

The proposed new rules, published this week in the Federal Register, are now open for routine comment. After the comments are reviewed by the Labor Department, the final regulations will take effect 30 days from their publication.

Organized labor, women's groups, and civil rights organizations should vigorously use the review process to insist that the changes actually do what one Labor Department official promises, namely, "create incentives for voluntary compliance and put an end to mindless confrontations with employers who have been acting in good faith."

There is little question that many smaller firms find the current compliance processes onerous and costly. For them, some form of relief from the paperwork burden seems in order so long as affirmative action requirements are met. But what must be ensured is that the changes do not serves as a method for retreating from the federal commitment to equal job opportunity for all Americans. About that there can and must be no compromise.

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