The Politics Behind Georgia’s Fair Employment Practices Law

The Politics Behind Georgia’s Fair Employment Practices Law

By Ginny Looney

Vol. 1, No. 1, 1978, pp. 21-23

In an election year, bill-signing ceremonies become as fine an occasion to judge the issues of an incumbent governor’s campaign as a speech at a barbecue picnic in Southwest Georgia. When Governor George Busbee signed the 1978 Georgia Fair Employment Practices Act into law in March, he spoke highly of the new law which could not have existed anywhere in the South 15 years ago. He called the bill “one of the most significant pieces of legislation to pass the general assembly in many years.”

Busbee made it clear to the press and other observers, however, that equal opportunity in employment would be brought to Georgia “through the type of working relationship already established and because our people want to do what is right.” Echoing the strident words shouted in the past to resist such changes, the New South governor employed the old rhetoric about the way change effectively occurs. He said that fairness in state jobs won’t come through threats, coercion, unruly demonstrations or nuisance court actions.”

The mixed symbols of the old and new politics of Georgia with which Busbee enacted the new legislation and campaigned for reelection explain much of the background behind the new law. The governor was campaigning for votes when he said that equal opportunity for a state job will now be afforded all applicants because officials want to do right.” Honorable intentions did not cause any appreciable difference in Black employment after Busbee issued an executive order in July 1976, encouraging state agencies to hire and promote more Blacks and women. Eighteen months later he was admitting privately that the executive order had failed.

It was not goodwill, but the methods Busbee dismissed as ineffective that led the general assembly to pass a law this year prohibiting discrimination in state employment. The threats of expensive lawsuits and the possible resulting coercion of a federal court order on state hiring convinced legislators to adopt a bill attempting to correct a problem rather than wait for a judge to impose an unwanted solution.

An expanded version of the Fair Employment Practices Act had originally been introduced 10 years ago. Two Black Georgia state legislators offered the bill again in 1976 and 1977. It was assigned to the Human Relations Committee where it remained until Busbee became directly involved by introducing similar legislation last February.

No magic caused the bill to pass, says a special assistant to the governor, Chuck Pierce. He attributes its enactment to the culmination of three years of work. This year the focus of the bill was narrowed to discrimination in public employment, and groups advocating equal opportunity for the handicapped, women, and Blacks were encouraged to lobby their legislators, he said.

Members of the Black legislative caucus emphasize different reasons for the support of the governor and the general assembly. ‘The pressure from complaints that might have resulted in class action suits which would have cost thousands of dollars to defend” was a major impetus, says Rep. Clint Deveaux. The two-term Atlanta legislator and lawyer said Busbee decided to support the bill as soon as it became apparent that the federal government was seriously investigating complaints which state employees had filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Some political pressure exerted by Black leaders probably encouraged Busbee to support the bill. Busbee received a large percentage of the Black vote in his election as governor and the support of the Black caucus for his legislative programs during the past four years. Therefore, when the caucus near the beginning of the 1978 legislative session publicly criticized Busbee and demanded to know how he planned to increase the numbers and salaries of Blacks in state government, the governor was willing to meet with caucus members to discuss their grievances. Agreeing that a racial imbalance among employees’ salaries existed, Busbee told the caucus he would introduce legislation to handle employment discrimination in state government.

The Black caucus exerted direct pressure on Busbee and the general assembly members in other ways. Rep. Mildred Glover of Atlanta, chairperson of the state merit system overview committee within the caucus, introduced a resolution seeking the support of House members for a petition of Black caucus to EEOC “to proceed with dispatch in its review and investigation of the charges of employment discrimination in Georgia state government.”

“We were in the process of creating turmoil within the general assembly,” says Rep. J.E. (Billy) McKinney, who filed complaints with EEOC against 11 departments in 1974 for their small percentage of Black employees. A roll-call vote on the resolution was to be requested to create particular pressure on White legislators representing predominantly Black districts. Five members of the caucus also traveled to Washington to ask the Department of Justice to review McKinney’s complaint about job discrimination and consider filing suit against the state. After Busbee’s bill was introduced, Black legislators canceled the House vote on the resolution and requested a further delay in EEOC investigations.

Most persuasive with fellow legislators, Rep. J.C. Daugherty said, was the cost of defending the state during investigations. Work production was lowered when staff had to respond to requests for information from EEOC, the Office of Civil Rights and the Office of Revenue Sharing, said Pierce, the governor’s assistant. We pointed out that we can either develop within the state the mechanism to address the charges or face answering those charges in investigations or court.”

The bill’s supporters cited cases against Alabama and Mississippi which had resulted in federal judges governing the process of hiring state troopers and other state employees. Daugherty reflected, ‘We dian’t think Georgia, being an enlightened state, that we needed to have a federal judge controlling our hiring.”

On March 9, 1978, the signature of George Busbee rflade the bill law. Unlike their counterparts to the west, Georgia elected officials, with their “enlightened” self-image, decided not to fight in the courts. Fearing what the “feds” might do, the state finally took affirmative action. It was politics as usual in the South.

During noon-time ceremonies on “Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials Day,” the day the Fair Employment Practices Act passed the House of Representatives, the governor called the legislation “a landmark declaration that affirmative

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action is the official policy of state government.” While unprecedented in the state of Georgia, the anti-discrimination bill is neither bold nor landmark legislation. It is not even unusual in the South, just late. Every state once belonging to the Confederacy, with the exceptions of Alabama and Mississippi, has some version of an equal employment opportunity office. A couple are more expansive in both their coverage and enforcement powers.

The Georgia law prohibits discrimination in state employment on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, national origin, handicap, or aoe (between 45 and 65 years). It provides for an administrator and a nine-member advisory board selected by the governor. Attorneys appointed to hear charges not settled through conciliation may order the hiring, reinstatement, or :ronotion of employees who are victims of discrimination. The Lw’s enforcement sections allow the imposition of $1000 fines if the Office of Fair Employment Practices (OFEP) makes public, v,thout permission, information obtained during investigations; 1 an employer retaliates against a person filing a charge; or if an ridividual files a frivolous charge against the state.

The law is limited because it deals only with state agencies, departments, and commissions. We cannot touch the private sector” or local governments, says G. Duke Beasley, the deputy regional director of EEOC who Busbee appointed in June to direct the OFEP. Beasley plans to push for amendments in the general assembly which would give the new office enforcement powers over private employers. “If I represented the state, why would I want the federal government to look at anything that happens in this state without my having an opportunity to correct it myself?” he asks to illustrate why he thinks the general assembly members will approve expanded authority for his office.

Other Southern states, like Florida and Tennessee, have state agencies which enforce antidiscririunation laws in public and private employment. North Carolina’s commission has authority only for voliJnta)i activity. The South Carolina Human Affairs Commission, created in 1972, has enforcement powers only in public employment but has handled disputes in private employment when employers request the state agency to consider a case. Reports that EEOC was planning to open an office in South Carolina to deal with employment practices in the textile industry led state legislators to introduce a bill giving the Human Affairs Commission power of enforcement in private industry.

In the Georgia law the compromises made to gain its passage may further reduce its effectiveness. In the House provisions for private attorneys designated to represent complainants during administrative hearings were deleted, although the law does allow the attorney general to represent the complaining party. The Senate reduced the life of the agency to two years unless the legislature votes to extend it.

More fundamentally, senators changed the tone of the bill by adding a provision fining persons $1 000 for frivolous charges,” an ominous sign to potential complainants, and expanding the sections disallowing “preferential treatment.” The law reads,”Quotas because of imbalances in employee ratios shall not be permitted” nor can employers hire or promote someone on the basis of their race, sex, age or handicap.

While the laws covers the handicapped, the state senate attempted to exclude them. Senators were moved by “confusion and fear–fear that they would have to hire every wino off the street,” says Tobiane Schwartz, an EEO specialist with the Army who lobbied to keep handicapped persons covered under the law. Their concern remains evident in the act’s definition of the “mentally handicapped” person. While the physically handicapped must prove their handicap does not interfere with job performance, the mentally handicapped must prove with medical evidence that their impairment has been “removed.” As Schwartz points out, “What does mental impairment mean? Does that include epilepsy or mental retardation? You will never be able to show that a mental impairment has been removed.”

For several weeks this spring, applicants for the job of director were submitting resumes to the governor’s office. More than 100 were received. Members of the Black legislative caucus, other legislators supporting the bill, women’s groups, and Black groups were asked to submit recommendations. Gov. Busbee interviewed six people for the job, including Tobiane Schwartz, former state Sen. Leroy Johnson and Sharon Adams, the head of the state Commission on the Status of Women. The person chosen, Duke Beasley, had not applied for the job.

There is some irony in the process by which the director was hired and he, in turn, hired people for the five staff positions. The agency charged with making certain that state goverment hires on the basis of merit rather than patronage did not widely publicize its job openings. While the selections were legally made, they clearly did not follow the spirit of the law. No written notices announcing the search for staff were circulated. Chuck Pierce, the governor’s aide who coordinated the hiring process, said solicitationsfor a director and staff were unnecessary because qualified applicants across the country were seeking the jobs.

Duke Beasley was selected as director because of his experience, says Pierce. “We could not afford to orient someone. Ve needed someone who could move in day one.” As deputy

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regional director of EEOC since 1972, Beasley had both administrative and compliance responsibilities for eight states in the Southeast. During 1975 and 1976, he served as regional acting director. He is on loan to the state for one year, which can be extended, during which time the federal government will continue to pay his salary.

The experience which impressed Busbee enough to hire Beasley had an opposite effect on some members of the Black caucus. The chairman of the caucus, Rep. Bobby hill of Savannah, called Beasley a “tired bureaucrat” shortly after his appointment, explaining, “I’m not interested in paperwork and memos.” Rep. McKinney said he was “not overly impressed because the director came from EEOC, and EEOC has a record of total, absolute failure.”

The lawmakers’ criticism illustrates the challenge of the director’s job. EEOC has a backlog of 400 to 500 complaints against the state which will be deferred to OFEP. Since EEOC has been unable to eliminate the backlog, it will be a difficult task for Beasley’s new staff to achieve in two years.

Such difficulties do not daunt Beasley. He is proud of the staff of EEOC specialists he inherited from the state merit system, which has been under contract with EEOC to investigate charges of state employees ‘I predict within 60 days that we will be the most viable agency in the state because of my own personality and how I manage,’ he said in an interview at the end of his first week as director.

Sitting in his partitioned corner office, no larger than an elevator, the 56 year-old administrator was separated from his stiff by a glass wall which allowed him to survey the room. He w scheduled to use a spacious executive’s office, he said, but requested instead to work in the same crowded, temporary offices as his 14-member staff. Since he feels a manager is only as good as his staff, Beasley hopes to guide them by example and discipline to be hardworking, fair, and beneficial. The father of seven frequently refers to his philosophy of child-rearing to explain his management style. On a first-name bris with his employees he hopes each will treat every complaining party walking through the door “the same as they would the governor.”

Beasley and his staff began working on July 3, a day when many workers chose to take a holiday. One of their firt jobs has been the clearing of 131 EEOC complaints assigned to the state By disposing of those cases this summer the staff will be ready to begin work on the complaints which EEOC will release to OFEP when it gains “deferral” status. Deferral status means that EEOC defers investigatory powers to the local or state agency which by law has authority to investigate and enforce antidiscrimination laws.

Although enthusiastic and confident about the potential impact of his office, Beasley did express concern about getting state employees to know their rights and to view his agency as the place to exercise those rights. At the same time, his emphasis focuses on settling complaints through conciliation. “Much can be done depending on the attitude of department heads. If one thing is necessary to bring about job opportunity, it is that the head of a department must be receptive to change. If thuy don’t change, there will be an unnecessary expenditure of money to respond to lawsuits.”

Along with his staff, Beasley has a difficult job ahead. He has a year to end a backlog of complaints which the federal agency he helped run has been unable to eliminate. He must inspire a staff with a reputation for slowness in investigating complaints already contracted to the state. He must try to gain the respect of employees dissatisfied with their treatment at work and employees mistrustful of any interference in the administration of their department while trying to alter the views of both groups. Finally, he must deal with the political pressure from legislators who want state employment to reflect the percentage of Blacks in the state’s population.

The Black caucus plans to monitor his work. “We will want a quantitative accounting of complaints of discrimination settled and in whose favor,” says Rep. Glover. “We want Duke Beasley to be accountable so we will be looking closely.” Rep Deveaux predicts the 1978 act will turn state government upside down, but not without time and controversy. “It will take a long time.”

It is too early to tell if OFEP will be able to bring equal opportunity to Georgia state government. Like the executive order before it, the Fair Employment Practices Act has forestalled any federal intervention for at least two more years. Hopefully, it will be more effective in transforming attitudes of employees, employers and elected officials about what is “right” in state government. Gov. Busbee may then claim that “working relationships alreadyestabIished- were responsible for bringing equal opportunity to state government. Most likely, the law’s effect will grow slowly following the same circuitous evolution that has moved Southern politics unwillingly in the past fifteen years from the talk of diehard, vehement hatred to the language–if not the deeds–of self-serving enlightenment.