Arkansas workplace discrimination charges fall 35% in 2013

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A report of the number of charges filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on the basis of harassment and discrimination showed the state of Arkansas' numbers dropped more than 35% from 2012 to 2013, the most of any state in the nation.

The total number of Arkansas charges filed in 2012 were 2,374, while the state had only 1,524 charges filed last year, according to the report. In neighboring Oklahoma, there were 1,360 charges, down 9.2% compared to 2012. Missouri had 1,958 charges in 2013, down 6.76% compared to 2013.

Even though the numbers would make the drop appear drastic, Vice President Mary Cooper of the Central Arkansas Human Resources Association said the bigger bit of news was the drastic rise in the number of charges in 2012 compared to other years, both nationally and statewide.

"The question becomes what was wrong in 2012? It's the sex(-based discrimination) claims. Discrimination based on sex was 50% of the total 2012 claims, as opposed to other years," Cooper, an employment attorney at the Little Rock law firm of Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon and Galchus, said.

The increase represents a rise in sexual discrimination charges of 142.89% from 2011's total of 499 charges filed, versus 2012's total of 1,212. The numbers returned to historic figures last year, with only 487 sexual discrimination-based charges filed.

Figures from the EEOC show that not only did sexual discrimination account for 51.1% of charges filed in 2012, but race-based discrimination only accounted for 31% of charges during the same period.

Fast-forward to 2013, those numbers are a near identical flip, with race-based discrimination counting for 48.7% of discrimination, while sex-based discrimination only counted for 32% of complaints, again returning to historical norms. Figures show the 2013 total for sex-based discrimination was on par with dates as far back as 2009, with no year accounting for more than 30% of overall cases except for 2012's total of 51.1%.

Cooper said one of the likely explanations was a change in policy within the administration of President Barack Obama, who has directed the EEOC to focus on more claims under Title VII, which deals with transgendered and sexual orientation as a bias, versus flat out discrimination.

Jimmy Lin, vice president of product management and corporate development at The Network — a Norcross, Ga.-based company specializing in governance, risk and compliance solutions — told The City Wire that sexual orientation charges are not reported at the federally, but instead are "dependent on each state's laws."

Because of the distinction, Cooper said a bias must typically be a matter of policy, as the Obama administration has made transgendered and sexual orientation during the last few years.

"If you say a person should dress more feminine to get a promotion, while sexual orientation isn't necessarily a protected class, bias based on that started being enforced."

Cooper also noted that the administration assembled a task force to address the Equal Pay Act, though again it is hard to pin-point a precise reason for the movement in numbers. One factor she said is not being looked at but Cooper said likely made a difference in 2013's numbers is the government shutdown.

The agency was already under increased pressure due to sequestration, the federal government's automatic reduction in spending for all agencies, which President Sunshine Bartlett of the Western Arkansas Human Resources Association said would put pressure on the agency to only pursue cases it believes are winnable.

"They are back to the same budget they had in 2009 due to sequestration. So they are looking at quality of lawsuits over quantity. They are actually filing suits on a lower number of cases where they can get more money,” Bartlett said.

Regardless of what moves the government is making by either pursuing fewer cases or enforcing different policies dependent on the whims of a politician or bureaucrat, he said Arkansas' highest in the nation drop in harassment and discrimination charges was, at least in part, to the efforts of businesses to improve workplace environments.

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"This shows that businesses are putting more time and thought into their employee training programs to ensure employees understand what harassment and discrimination is and what they should do if an incident occurs. Instilling strong ethics in employees from day one is crucial in establishing an ethical workplace that's free of harassment and discrimination."

As for what 2014 will look like, whether it will see a spike similar to 2012 or stay on par with 2013 and other years, Cooper said it's too early to tell. But Bartlett said observers should expect some upward movement in the numbers.

"When you look at the numbers, there are drops and then it sort of comes back up. From 2009 to 2012, each year they were seeing the highest levels ever. But in 2014, I do think it will ramp back up and surpass the 2013 level."

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