The Missouri Chamber of Commerce Tuesday criticized Gov. Jay Nixon's stand on legislation designed to reform state employment laws.
Nixon on Monday blasted legislation approved earlier this month by the House that would require workers who claim discrimination in wrongful firing lawsuits to prove that bias was a "motivating" factor, not just a "contributing" factor. The measure also would limit what fired workers could recover.
Daniel P. Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, said Nixon apparently has decided to veto the legislation.
"We are extremely disappointed in the governor's decision," Mehan said. "Missouri courts have eroded the standards in employment law and this is costing our state jobs."
Mehan said "the intention of the bill was grossly misrepresented by plaintiff's lawyers during the debate of the bill and in the press."
He said the legislation would have made Missouri law mirror the federal Civil Rights Act and codify whistleblower protections.
"This legislation would have brought Missouri law back in line with other states, reduced frivolous lawsuits, and insured more timely and fair resolution for legitimate discrimination cases," Mehan said. "Make no mistake. Discrimination is wrong and does not belong in our society. Discrimination should be rooted out and stopped.
"However, Missouri laws are so unfairly skewed that employers are unable to adequately defend themselves against even the most frivolous claims."
Nixon said the bill "would throw new hurdles in the path of those whose rights have been violated. That is unacceptable."
In addition to changing the legal standard fired employees must meet, the legislation also would limit punitive damages, ranging from $50,000 to $300,000, depending on the size of the company.
Similar limits would apply to whistleblowers - people who report incidents of discrimination to state authorities - if they sue their employer for retaliating against them.
The legislation is one of six business priorities during the current legislative session.
Mehan said the legislation is badly needed because "Missouri courts have eroded the law to the point that Missouri holds the distinction of some of the lowest standards for discrimination lawsuits in the nation."
"In Missouri courts," he said, "the employer is guilty until proven innocent. And with the governor's veto, the standard will remain.
"What we're trying to do is use the same standards that are used in federal court."
Mehan said the legislation would have attracted and retained more employers and jobs in Missouri.
"Missouri businessmen cannot move the state forward and recover from recession without modest protections from frivolous lawsuits and the constant barrage of trial lawyers filing lawsuits hoping for a big payoff," Mehan said. "A veto of SB 188 will continue to cost our state jobs and put more workers' livelihoods at risk."
Nixon disagreed. He said the legislation mirroring the federal Civil Rights Act "would allow companies to discriminate against minorities and people with disabilities without creating any new jobs."
"To thrive in a global economy and uphold the values we share," Nixon said, "we must be a state that continues to move forward, not backward, when it comes to civil rights and equal opportunity."