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Getting into Private Business's Business

California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg wants the public to know how diverse the state's companies are.

12:00 AM, Sep 6, 2002 • By BETH HENARY
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PRO-BUSINESS GROUPS in California are railing against a bill that would require businesses and labor organizations to report racial and gender figures to the state every year. The bill's sponsor says it is designed to "put a little pressure" on companies and unions whose demographics don't mirror those of their respective communities. Businesses believe it could provide fresh meat for trial lawyers.

Passed by both legislative houses in late August on party-line votes, AB 1309 awaits signature on California governor Gray Davis's desk. If signed into law, the bill would force businesses and labor groups with 100 or more employees or members, as well as certain apprenticeship programs, to annually report their racial and gender breakdown to the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing. That department would then make the information available to any person or group willing to file a Public Records Act request. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, AB 1309 puts into statute a little-complied-with employment regulation now only enforced when businesses seek state contracts.

Goldberg's office says that, paperwork-wise, the bill doesn't change much. Employers would simply submit the same form they do to the federal equal employment office. It's essentially one page. A Goldberg staffer told THE DAILY STANDARD that the number of unlawful employment practice--i.e., discrimination--lawsuits might go down because potential plaintiffs could access a company's race statistics before they sue. Irregular compliance with the current regulation makes the availability of such data sporadic.

But the bill also has a preemptive tone. It will, of course, allow attorneys or anyone else "to look at companies' diversity records for any skewed pattern" of hiring and retention, the staffer said. Assemblywoman Goldberg told the Bay Area paper the Contra Costa Times, "I do not believe we have destroyed the glass ceiling for women and barriers for many ethnic groups." Support for the diversity reporting bill comes from women's groups like California NOW and the Institute for Women's Leadership, and, among others, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Julianne Broyles, lobbyist for the California Chamber of Commerce, calls AB 1309 "a growing concern among our membership." The chamber believes making companies' diversity statistics available for "patrolling by plaintiffs' lawyers" will not only invite frivolous lawsuits, but also serve as "just another excess California employers have to take on that employers in other states do not." She points out that, for example, under the new law, anyone could obtain the diversity breakdown of not just one business, but of all the businesses in a given zip code. Opposing the bill along with the chamber are the American Institute of Architects' California chapter, the Engineering Contractors' Association, and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

The main reason the California Manufacturers and Technology Association dislikes the bill, according to its lobbyist Willie Washington, is that it objects not to the process of submitting the form, but to the purposes for which the form will be used.

"This bill doesn't require information to be gathered for the same purposes as the [federal and current state] form," Washington says, indicating that those purposes are purely statistical. "The fair employment and housing office doesn't gather the information to make it publicly available."

The association is concerned about greedy lawyers and newly forming union chapters intimidating California businesses with their diversity statistics. With this kind of law, Washington says, "There's always the potential that you set up a situation for attorneys out there fishing for something to do. They know they can get companies to capitulate to avoid bad press. . . . We're very concerned about that cadre of attorneys."

Washington disagrees with the bill's sponsor over how much would change were the bill to become law. "It would make it easier--and the information more readily available--for attorneys and labor to bring [unlawful employment practice] lawsuits."

Jackie Goldberg has called her bill a "very small" one. Indeed it may be, but the provisions she had to drop to make it palatable to the legislature are telling. Among them were references to specific penalties for violation, requirements that employers report data on job applicants, that employers report their recruitment practices, and that the information be downloadable from the Internet.

On Wednesday, was American Civil Rights Coalition chairman Ward Connerly came out strongly against the racial and gender reporting bill.