Business

Forum to examine workplace discrimination issues

"Nancy Gray remembers interviewing for a community college job in the 1960s and being asked deeply personal and embarrassing questions.She was asked if she planned to have any more children, and grilled her on use of birth control.In those days you answered the questions, but you resented it, said Gray, an English teacher at Chapman University on Subase Bangor. Gray will mediate a public forum discussing workplace discrimination Thursday, Sept. 20, at Olympic College. The discussion, sponsored by the Kitsap County Council for Human Rights, was designed to inform employers and employees about their rights and responsibilities on a topic which often is misunderstood, Gray said.Discrimination based on gender, religion, race, country of origin, age and marital status will be covered. A separate forum on Oct. 24 will focus on the Americans with Disabilities Act.One of the panelists, Amy Stephson, is a Seattle attorney with experience in sex discrimination cases. There is a lot of misinformation out there about discrimination and sexual harassment, Stephson said. The law puts heavy responsibility on employers to provide a harassment-free workplace.Employers can be held responsible if they are aware their workers are being harassed by customers, co-workers or even delivery people.One myth about sexual harassment is that if you tell an explicit joke you can be fired for it. Stephson said others think, 'God, I can't even talk to a woman, or ask a co-worker on a date. I can't say anything.'The legal definition of sexual harassment requires that there be a pattern of behavior that creates a hostile workplace, Stephson said.Another myth is that discrimination does not really exist and people are just overreacting. Stephson said in her years of practicing law she has seen cases which run the gamut from neanderthal sexual harassment to more nuanced, subtle cases which also qualify as harassment. Panelists also will discuss changes in state law that came about after Initiative 200 banned affirmative action in Washington in 1999.Now no preference can be given because of race, said Jacquelyn Aufderheide, Kitsap County's senior deputy prosecuting attorney for the civil division who will serve on the panel.Racial epithets, discriminatory promotion practices and recruiting techniques that reach minorities also will be touched on.One problem we have in Kitsap County is letting (minorities) know positions are available, Aufderheide said. She said newspapers aren't the best place to advertise because of language barriers and suggested businesses also recruit at community centers that serve minorities. Discrimination laws are complex but sensible, Stephson said, but the nature of human relationships sometimes can make it difficult to discern when discrimination is taking place.There is discrimination in the workplace, but there are also complex human relationships that aren't discrimination. Both create problems that need to be addressed, Stephson said.Stephson also stressed that as our world becomes increasingly diverse, employers are only hurting themselves if they narrow their labor pools to exclude women, minorities and other protected groups.Washington discrimination law recently was altered by a pivotal case, Roberts v. Dudley. The county discrimination panel will examine what the change means to employers.Employers with fewer than eight employees formerly were exempt from state laws against discrimination. But a February 2000 state Supreme Court ruling changed that.Before Roberts v. Dudley, the Washington statues applied only to businesses with eight or more (employees), so medical offices (or other businesses) with few employees could technically discriminate based on disability or sex, Aufderheide said. Now the court says (the law applies) to hiring, firing and terms of employment.Although it has not yet been applied to race, Aufderheide said it is likely just a matter of time. One of the panelists who will speak at the forum, Stephson, was responsible for handling the Supreme Court appeal for Roberts v. Dudley. She said the case focused on a woman who was wrongfully fired after she had a baby. The forum is scheduled for 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20, in the Olympic College Media Center at the Hazelwood Library.The presentation will be aired live on BKAT channel 3 or channel 12 on AT&T cable. The panel will field questions from the studio audience and by telephone from TV viewers. For more information, visit www.kitsapgov.com or call the Kitsap County Council for Human Rights 377-4883. "

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