JEFFERSON CITY - In an effort to fight employment discrimination, one lawmaker has proposed a Missouri Equal Pay Act that would improve salary protections for workers targeted because of their race, age, sex or disability.
If enacted, the proposal would allow victims to file a discrimination suit in state court. Such actions must now be filed in federal court.
"This new process is not easier, but it is, definitely, more accessible for people and, of course, less expensive," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Hickey, D-St. Louis County.
Hickey said "it will be easier for employees to say if they are having a discriminative attitude with their salaries."
Colleen Baker, director of the Division of Labor Standards, said the proposal would also cover those who currently lack protection.
Federal law currently protects those employed by a company engaged in interstate commerce with at least $500,000 annual gross revenues. Suits may be filed at the federal level only after a formal complaint and investigation.
The proposed state law would apply to any business with six or more employees. Religious and sectarian groups would be exempt.
"This would appear to expand the number of business affected." said Baker.
For its part, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce said it would oppose the proposal.
"This law is unnecessary," said Kelly Gillespie, a spokesman for the statewide business group, who argued the measure would not end discrimination.
The bill would also clarify the conditions in which employees with similar responsibilities could receive different salaries, for example through a bona fide seniority or merit system or one in which earnings were determined by the quality of the production.
For some observers, the proposal would be a small, but necessary, step.
Cristina Lindall, a leader within Columbia's Hispanic community, said age and race are the most frequent forms discrimination in Missouri.
"This bill will promote the awareness of the inequality," Lindall said. "We have to break stereotypes in this state, especially related to the color of the skin and the ethnic association."
Hicks said one of his goals was to increase awareness among employers.
"This bill is telling the employers, Do it right first," said Hichey.
"From the beginning."