Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Last month, we took two big strides toward reducing employment discrimination in America.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued rulings that finally protect some of our country’s most vulnerable job seekers — sexual minorities and people with arrest records.
The first ruling protects transgender individuals from being discriminated against in the workplace.
The second action updates guidance limiting when and how employers can take the criminal history of an applicant or an employee into consideration. The new guideline says that employers cannot treat such history differently on the basis of someone’s race or national origin. And it states that a policy of excluding those with criminal records from employment “may violate the law if it is not job related and consistent with business necessity.”
The unemployment rates for the communities affected by these rulings are shocking. For transgender people, it is a reported 56 percent. Unemployment rates are also in double digits for people who are disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system — African-Americans, Latinos, and adults without a high school diploma.
These actions are good news for all Americans. By leveling the playing field for those who are among the most discriminated against in employment decisions, more people will be able to participate in the work force, pay taxes, take care of their families, and contribute to society.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlaws discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The EEOC recognized that our country has changed greatly over the past 50 years and correctly understood that the statute’s prohibition against sex discrimination must also apply to intentional discrimination based on gender identity.
The commission also grappled with the huge increase in the arrest and incarceration rates among minorities over the last 25 years and the effect this has on employment opportunities once individuals have paid their debt to society. About one in 17 white men are expected to serve time in prison during their lifetime; by contrast, this rate is one in six for Hispanic men and one in three for African-American men. These inequities only magnify the discriminatory barriers already experienced by minorities when they face a job search.
The EEOC initially offered guidance on the use of criminal background checks in hiring decisions in 1987 — before anyone knew what the Internet was and at a time when performing background checks required so much personal attention that the practice was rarely used. Today, there is a huge industry that conducts criminal background checks for employment decisions, and 90 percent of companies engage in the practice. The guidance governing use of criminal background checks desperately needed to be updated to keep pace with the growth of technology, and the EEOC did just that.
The EEOC clearly recognized that the workplace and our country have evolved. Now it’s Congress’ turn.
Congress should pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been introduced in almost every Congress since 1994 and would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It should also address the systemic disparities in our criminal justice system so that everyone has a fair chance at the American Dream.
Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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