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How a Bill Becomes a…War on Women?

Prior to joining WMC, I was a state legislative staffer for about eight years. While at the Capitol, I had the privilege to see and participate in the creation of numerous Wisconsin laws. Diving deep into an issue and thoroughly understanding the benefits and consequences of a bill’s passage was a regular part of my day. It was this work that gave me a deep appreciation for the creation of public policy. It also made me keenly aware of the potential for negative consequences.
WMC worked diligently this session, on behalf of its members, to repeal Act 20 from the session prior. You may remember, Governor Jim Doyle allowed complainants, for the first time ever and with support of the democratic-controlled legislature and trial attorneys, to bring action in state circuit court to recover punitive and compensatory damages in an employment discrimination case. Governor Walker and the legislature were supportive of the repeal and the less-than-two-year-old law went away.
The non-partisan Legislative Council explains it well. Current law today, and prior to the implementation of Act 20, provides that a person alleging a violation of the Wisconsin Fair Employment Law may file a complaint with the Department of Workforce Development. If a hearing examiner finds a violation, the examiner may order such action as will effectuate the purpose of the Fair Employment law, including reinstatement of the employee and payment of back pay, attorney fees and costs.
So the difference between the law now and a session ago comes down to money, and how much you think is enough. Your side of the issue is determined by whether or not you think back pay, attorney fees and costs (and potentially punitive and compensatory damages in federal court) are sufficient for someone who has been discriminated against in the workplace. Let’s also be clear that the complainant can be a person of color, a person with a different religious background, a man, a woman. You get the point.
So the obvious response must be, “This is a ‘War on Women’.” Insert audible sigh here.
It is irritating when something so straightforward, frankly something that can be characterized as a simple swing in tort law, is so misconstrued.
It is political rhetoric that pushes people further into their camps. The internet generation posts sweeping generalizations and often inaccuracies that deepen the division. Legislators themselves make misstatements, intentional or not, that add to the confusion. What results is a populace who believe what they read and encourage misinformation.
I opened my Facebook page and saw a posting from a friend who grew up here and now lives in Minnesota – “Governor Walker repeals a woman’s ability to sue for workplace discrimination.”
Lilly Ledbetter, famed women’s activist, was writing columns for our state newspapers crying foul on the repeal of this law that creates “pay equity” in the workplace. (Let’s tackle the reality of the pay equity issue in another column, shall we?)
I wrote an April op-ed appearing in the Wausau Daily Herald dispelling some of the mistruths. PolitiFact gave a false rating to then gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett for claiming Walker said “no” to equal pay for women. Yet the distortions continued.
It is likely that WMC, as Wisconsin’s leading business trade association, will routinely be involved in contentious issues. Let’s hope the policy debates moving forward will be based on facts instead of hyperbole and political gamesmanship.
By Rebecca Hogan, WMC Director of Health and Human Resources Policy




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