Judge: Iowa hiring policies did not hurt Blacks

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by David Pitt and Ryan J. Foley

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)—Iowa’s state government employment policies have not discriminated against Black employees and job applicants, a judge ruled Tuesday in a case closely watched by civil rights activists.

District Judge Robert Blink issued the ruling after overseeing a trial last fall in the class action lawsuit affecting up to 6,000 applicants who applied for jobs dating back to 2003. He rejected attempts to require Iowa to pay tens of millions in lost wages or change its hiring policies to track and eliminate disparities.

Blink said the plaintiffs failed to prove that state managers’ “subjective, discretionary decision-making…caused disparate impact or adverse impact with respect to hiring and promotion decisions.”

Experts have called the case the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind against a state government’s civil service system, and it tested a legal theory that social science and statistics alone can prove widespread discrimination.

Jamie Buelt, a spokeswoman for the plaintiffs, said they are studying the ruling and will comment on the judge’s decision later. They would have the right to appeal.

Unlike many other discrimination lawsuits, the plaintiffs did not argue that they faced overt racism or a discriminatory hiring test in Iowa, which is 91 percent white. Instead, their lawyers claimed implicit bias in which managers throughout state government subconsciously favored whites and hurt blacks through their decisions about who got interviewed, hired and promoted. They said state officials failed to follow their own hiring rules meant to prevent such bias.

The plaintiffs called experts during the trial who testified that Blacks are hired at lower rates in Iowa than similarly-situated Whites and receive less favorable evaluations and lower starting salaries. They also highlighted a consultant’s report in 2007 that warned of disparities between Whites and minorities, and argued that steps meant to improve diversity of the state workforce were not effective.

Blacks represented 2.9 percent of the state’s population in 2010 and 2.4 percent of the state workforce despite applying for state jobs more often, statistics show. The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, Thomas Newkirk, had urged the judge to take “bold action” that would make Iowa a leader in offering equal employment opportunities to a key disadvantaged group.

Lawyers working under Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, had asked Blink to dismiss the case. They called the scope of the lawsuit—it questioned every hiring and promotion decision made at 37 state agencies, involving 20,000 jobs and 500,000 applications—unprecedented and the legal theory behind it unproven. They argued that the plaintiffs failed to show any specific policy caused discrimination and that other causes could explain pockets of disparities within state government, not subtle biases.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office had no immediate comment.

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