US hiring rules: red tape or a helping hand?

A Louisville, Ky., welfare mother with two children and a third-grade education set about improving her lot by taking a two-week course in construction labor.

Afterward it took six weeks and about 40 applications, but she finally landed a job spreading asphalt for a highway crew at $9 an hour.

A year and a half later, the construction worker, who is black, has moved her family out of public housing and into an apartment, gone off welfare, and thought about becoming an electrician. She also has completed work for a high school diploma.

This new twist on the Cinderella story is one of thousands played out for women and minorities across the country during the last decade, in part because of pressure on employers brought by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). The office stepped into whirlwind of controversy last week when the Reagan administration proposed relaxing its regulations.

Although aimed at cutting red tape for businesses, the reforms have been bombarded with criticism both from the business community and from civil rights workers. It doesn't go far enough in reducing paper work, says business. Equal-employment advocates charge the changes will be a "disaster" for women and minorities.

The new regulations would let thousands of smaller companies "off the hook" by exempting them from filing "affirmative-action programs" that outline efforts to hire and promote women and minorities. Only companies with 250 or more workers and which do $1 million worth of work a year for the federal government would still fall under the requirement.

The Reagan reforms also would end the requirement for reviewing a company's equal-employment record before granting contracts.

Larger companies still would have to submit affirmative-action plans under the rules enforcing an executive order, dating to 1965, that requires contractors who do business with the federal government to be nondiscriminatory.

It is said that companies that do work for Uncle Sam employ one-third of the nation's work force. They include factories that make pencils and those that build submarines, as well as construction contractors, banks, and insurance firms.

It is difficult to judge how effective the rules for contractors have been. Carin Clauss, a lawyer at the Department of Labor for 18 years and former solicitor for the department under President Carter, says that "nothing much happened" until the late 1960s when the government began requiring companies to set goals and timetables. Once managers could see the actual figures, that led to substantial change, says Ms. Clauss, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law school.

A decade ago almost no one conceived that women could be coal miners. But during the early 1970s the government told mining companies to aim at hiring 20 percent women. The results were dramatic. At one large Kentucky company where reportedly no woman had applied for mining work in 1972, only six years later more than 1,000 were said to seek mine jobs once they saw the possibility of getting them.

In some of the nation's biggest cities there were virtually no blacks in construction jobs during the early 1960s, recalls Clauss. Now the numbers reach as high as 10 to 15 percent.

And in banking, whee women have long been the majority in the work force, almost 9 of every 10 officers were men in 1960. By 1979 close to one-third of the officers were women.

Clauss gives credit for these changes to the required written goals and timetables for hiring women and minorities.

"It's the same as a profit plan or an inventory plan," she says, and "it gives top management a tool to examine lower-level management." The beauty of it is that many companies now set up such schemes voluntarily, says the former Labor Department lawyer.

No one is giving the OFCCP perfect marks, however. Observers on all sides agree that its paper work is sometimes burdensome and inefficient. And a US General Accounting Office report last year took the OFCCP to task for confusing contractors and duplicating the work of other agencies.

President Carter tried cautiously to make reforms, but only after mounds of studies and consultations with various factions. Now President Reagan, sweeping his new "deregulation" broom, has rewritten the rules within a matter of months and with no major studies or public hearings.

The business community, which long has seen the requirement for submitting "affirmative action" programs as a thorn in its side, is far from satisfied.

"The regulations as proposed will lighten the paper work burden a bit," says John P. Brandenburg, labor lawyer for the US Chamber of Commerce. But he is pushing for reforming the basic 1965 executive order on equal employment and, especially, for stripping the federal contract office of powers to order companies to make back pay in case of alleged discrimination.

"It's a numbers game over there," says Mr. Brandenburg, adding that the office computers are three years behind in reviewing employment records.

He adds that the time has come for relying more on voluntary efforts by employers. Asked about charges that voluntary systems don't work, he says, "That's hogwash. The business community has been marvelous about affirmative action. They've spent a lot of money on it."

Even without the executive order, he says, companies would continue to seek minorities and women. "We are now in the second generation" of desegregation, he maintains. "A lot of companies came in kicking and screaming" when first ordered to stop discriminating, but now many companies go well beyond what is required," says the Chamber of Commerce lawyer.

"Now that we're in the second generation, you don't need all that paper work and nitpicking," he says."Just give us a simple compliance system and the business community will comply. But just don't give us paper work."

Paul Grossman, a Los Angeles attorney who collaborated on a book about job discrimination, charges the OFCCP for "concentrating on minutiae" and for using ill-trained personnel. He says that a manual he helped prepare on how to write an affirmative action program is 250 pages long, single-spaced."The minutiae is beyond belief," he says.

Civil rights workers say their opponents have misplaced their values. "They say reducing paper work has the same value as ending segregation in the workplace," says Barry L. Goldstein, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

The proposed Reagan changes "could have drastic consequences," he says. "The signal that is sent out is there is going to be less government enforcement."

Critics also point out that most new job growth is expected to come from small companies that would be exempted from filing written affirmative action plans. They are skeptical of Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan's prediction that 77 percent of the currently covered workers would still be covered by written plans.

Laurie Westley, lawyer for Wider Opportunities for Women, headquartered in Washington, says that "without goals there will be a huge retrenchment." She adds that millions of women now live below the poverty line even though they work full-time at low-paying jobs and that the need to boost their earnings is more pressing because divorce has made many the sole breadwinners of their family.

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