Rights Bill That Works

THIS week conferees from the House and Senate are trying to complete a new civil rights bill aimed at discrimination against minorities and women in the workplace. Besides reconciling differences in the two chambers' versions of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, the lawmakers are negotiating with the White House to craft a bill that President Bush will sign. So far, however, the president appears to be unbudging from earlier threats to veto the legislation, which he has called a ``quotas bill.''

We expressed reservations about the original bill, which could have led employers to establish hiring and promotion quotas to avoid costly and sometimes dubious lawsuits. Employment quotas based on race, gender, or ethnicity are not the way to eliminate either current bias in the workplace or the vestiges of past discrimination.

Yet the evidence of job discrimination remains indisputable. Even the FBI, whose duties include enforcing federal civil rights laws, can be contaminated by invidious discrimination - as successful suits by black and Hispanic agents have recently shown.

The sponsors of the act have made more than 20 changes in response to objections by the White House and business groups. The bill now strikes a fair balance between the rights of employers and employees, and reasonably allocates the legal burdens in suits alleging discrimination in hiring or promotion.

The bill would reverse the effects of five Supreme Court decisions that made it harder for workers to challenge allegedly discriminatory practices. The major case pertained to so-called ``disparate impact'' suits, in which plaintiffs try to demonstrate, using statistics on the composition of an employer's work force, that the employer's hiring practices discriminate against certain classes of workers. The proposed law would shift back to employers the burden of proving that the challenged practices are required for reasons of ``business necessity,'' as they were required to do before the Court's 1989 ruling.

Critics say that employers will adopt hiring quotas to avoid the legal difficulties of proving ``business necessity.'' Yet there is little evidence that employers established such quotas before the 1989 decision. Also, adjustments in the bill changing the definition of ``business necessity'' have eased the employers' burden.

As altered, the bill would add to, not detract from, fairness in the workplace. It deserves the president's signature.

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