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Slowing economy means a busy year for EEOC claims

Kansas City Business Journal - by David Twiddy Staff Writer

The down economy, with its attendant layoffs and tight job market, has fueled a resurgence in employment discrimination claims throughout the country.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's annual report noted a 4.5 percent increase last year in claims filed nationwide.

Locally, the storm has been milder, with the EEOC's Kansas City office reporting a decrease in the number of claims in the immediate area and throughout Kansas.

Sharron Blalock, outreach manager for the EEOC's St. Louis office, said it's difficult to directly compare 2001 and 2002 locally because large numbers of complaints were filed two years ago in connection with an age discrimination suit the EEOC filed against Allstate Corp.

State agencies that handle employment discrimination claims reported mixed results.

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights said it received 1,869 claims during the year that ended July 1, up slightly from the 1,840 in 2001.

Kansas Commission on Human Rights officials, however, reported a 4 percent decrease in claims, down to 1,073.

"We usually move with (the EEOC) lock and step," said Mark Hollar, assistant director for the Kansas commission. "Ours has stayed pretty steady, which is rather surprising with all the layoffs."

Missouri's commission doesn't break down figures based on geography, but Executive Director Donna Cavitte said Kansas City is typically a stable area for claims.

Complainants to the commission blamed sex discrimination in 25.7 percent of claims, the largest single area, followed by race (22.1 percent), disability (20.2 percent), retaliation for other complaints (16.7 percent) and age (11.9 percent). Employees can allege more than one type of discrimination.

Nationally, the biggest increases were for religious discrimination, age and national origin.

Cavitte blamed the poor economy for most of the increases. Laid-off employees think they have nothing to lose in filing a complaint when they think they haven't gotten a fair shake, she said.

"I've been with the agency for 30 years, and I can tell you that whenever we're in good times, we don't see large volumes of cases," she said, adding that through the first six months of the new fiscal year, the agency has received 1,276 new claims.

Not all claims go on to become state or federal lawsuits, and officials said it's almost impossible to determine a percentage. But each claim has that potential, and so those who deal with the legal end of discrimination complaints said local employers must remain vigilant.

"Kansas City is a very hot area for employment litigation," said Paul Seyferth of Husch & Eppenberger LLC, who advises companies on beefing up employee policies. "We have an extremely competent and aggressive plaintiff attorney bar in Kansas City."

A member of that bar, Scott McCreight of Davis Ketchmark Eischens & McCreight, said that years of training have educated workers on their rights and that "there's no stigma in asserting them."

That makes the jobs of human resources managers and defense attorneys more important.

"We talk about being very proactive," said Paul Pautler, chairman of the labor and employment law practice at Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin LLP. "The time to think about employment practices is not at the time of a mass layoff. It's years before that.

"It's not rocket science. Those employers who keep their people happy have much less of a problem with complaints."


Reach David Twiddy at 816-421-5900 or dtwiddy@bizjournals.com.



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