Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Asking job applicants about marital status and kids

A story published today in the Daily Local discusses the general absence of laws prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about whether they are married or have children.

The story says that only 19 states have made it illegal for potential employers to ask job applicants these questions.


Pennsylvania is not one of them.

That may be changing, however. Legislation was introduced in the General Assembly early last year that would prohibit potential employers from asking job applicants about their marital or familial status. State Rep. Robert J. Flick, R-167th, of East Whiteland, co-sponsored the House bill.

"If an individual is able to meet the qualifications and do the work," he said, "what difference does it make if a person has a family or doesnít have a family?"

Flick, a licensed real estate broker, said a query about marital status was included on a questionnaire for job applicants when he sold real estate 25 years ago.

"In the real estate business, the family profile was one we wanted to know because it was linked to successful traits in sales people," he said.

The bill would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act of 1955, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin by employers, employment agencies and labor organizations.

The legislation would define marital status as "single, married, divorced, separated or widowed." The new language also would disallow discrimination on the basis of marital or family status, handicap or disability and the use of a guide or support animal.

"The perception is that we already have controls in place," said Leslie Stiles, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women.

Jamie McVickar, a controller at the Chadds Ford-based North American Land Trust, upheld that view. "I thought that was already the law," he said. However, he said he sees both sides of the issue.

"Iím not going to go totally politically correct on it," he said.

While married people might be more inclined to work hard to keep their jobs, said McVickar, single people have more flexibility to quit their jobs on short notice.

On the other hand, he said, "I think single people are more likely to work long, crazy hours."

Overall, he said individual rights should supersede business interests.

McVickar said he had attended a seminar where employers were discouraged from asking potential employees questions about their marital or familial status.

"You can ask it," he said. "But if you turn the person down, you take the chance of being sued based on discrimination."

However, Stiles said sex discrimination lawsuits are difficult to prove.

She said a single mother would have to validate that the same marital and familial questions were asked of men who applied for the same job. She added that the woman would have to prove that she was denied the job because she was a single mother.

"The perception of men with children is entirely different," said Stiles. "They are considered stable."

Kiki Peppard, a Monroe County single mother who has tried to get this legislation passed for 10 years, said the bill does not apply only to single mothers. She said potential employers also have asked her adult son questions about his marital status because of their concerns about providing family medical benefits.

To work around the questions of marital or familial status, McVickar said companies sometimes ask potential employees if they would require dependent health care benefits.

Flick said two of his constituents have cases before the state Human Relations Commission, which supports the legislation.

However, state Sen. Robert J. Thompson, R-19th, of West Goshen, said he has heard little about the issue from his constituents.

"There are a lot of (Equal Employment Opportunity) regulations dealing with hiring, certainly, and a lot of questions that you can and canít ask," he said. "This is not more onerous than a lot of others."

The bill was referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Thompson chairs, more than a year ago.

However, he said the volume of legislation is the primary reason that no action has been taken on this bill. He added that there were concerns about language that might be tacked onto the bill when it comes out of committee.

"It could get into same-sex marriage or social issues," Thompson said.

Both Chester County legislators indicated the bill will receive little, if any, attention when lawmakers return to Harrisburg in September.

Flick said legislation that has been passed in one chamber or the other will be given priority this fall. This bill, he said, "doesnít appear to be going anywhere."

Stiles, however, thought the change is long overdue.

"Our hope is that women in Pennsylvania can reach their highest potential," she said. "Being able to apply and get a job because theyíre qualified for that job is fair play."