Fight for rights

A bill that would allow state employees to sue the state under federal discrimination laws is getting a second glance after a similar bill stalled in the state Legislature last session.

Currently, states cannot be sued for violations of at least four federal civil rights laws, meaning state workers – including UW System employees – are without certain workplace protections, according to both a draft of the new bill and a press release issued by state Rep. Cory Mason’s office. Mason (D-Racine) is behind the new bill that would extend those rights to state employees.

Laws not currently extended to state workers include the Family Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

A similar bill was proposed during the last legislative session, but it stalled.

“I think this is the absolute wrong time to be encouraging lawsuits against the state of Wisconsin, and that’s exactly what this bill will lead to,” said Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) who referred to the bill as the “lawsuit encouragement act.”

Suder said there are already legal protections for state workers, as well as options for legal recourse against discrimination.

“It’s not as though state employees can’t, if they are wronged, find legal remedies,” he said. “But this bill would simply open the door wide open to a rash of lawsuits that taxpayers simply can’t afford.”

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) said there are legal avenues currently available to state workers, but added she feels the proposed bill “is a matter of fairness” and that it would not result in lawsuits if the state followed discrimination laws.

“The lawsuits come when there is the allegation of unfair treatment,” Vinehout said. “Frivolous lawsuits happen, but more likely a lawsuit is going to happen when there is a serious allegation of wrongdoing.”

The bill has apparently caught the support of several state organizations too. Leaders and spokespeople from AARP Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired and the State Bar of Wisconsin were quoted in Mason’s press release supporting the bill.

“The blind community in the state are certainly very capable to work, and our concern comes with accommodation,” said Gary Goyke, public relations director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“We want to make sure that their opportunities for work aren’t diminished because the law doesn’t affect them.”