In a case closely watched by civil rights activists, an Iowa judge will soon decide whether to grant thousands of black employees and job applicants monetary damages for hiring practices used by Iowa state government that they say have disadvantaged them.
Experts say the case is the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind against an entire state government’s civil service system, and tests a legal theory that social science and statistics alone can prove widespread discrimination.
The plaintiffs—up to 6,000 African-Americans passed over for state jobs and promotions dating back to 2003—do not say they faced overt racism or discriminatory hiring tests in Iowa, a state that is 91 percent white. Instead, their lawyers argue that managers subconsciously favored whites across state government, leaving blacks at a disadvantage in decisions over who got interviewed, hired and promoted.
Judge Robert Blink’s decision, expected in coming weeks, could award damages and mandate changes in state personnel policies or dismiss a case that represents a growing front of discrimination litigation.
Similar cases against local governments have failed because proving broad bias is extraordinarily difficult, with a myriad of possible factors to explain disparities, said David Friedland, a California human resources consultant who is an expert on discrimination in hiring. Success in Iowa could encourage similar lawsuits elsewhere, he said.
During a monthlong trial last fall, experts called by the plaintiffs’ lawyers testified that blacks are hired at lower rates than whites with similar qualifications and receive less favorable evaluations and lower starting salaries. An employment consultant hired by the administration of Gov. Tom Vilsack, who served from 1999 to 2007, warned of hiring disparities between whites and minorities in a report issued after he left office. Larkin called that report a strong “and pretty unusual piece of evidence” proving the state was aware of problems.
Vilsack’s successor, Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, responded by issuing an executive order requiring agencies to improve the diversity of the workforce. State officials called that evidence of progress, but class lawyers argued it turned out to be ineffective because rules meant to prevent bias still were not followed.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstrad said last fall his administration had ensured agencies were following uniform rules to stop any abuse—but a top state employment official testified days later he’d seen no substantive changes to hiring practices in years. Blacks represented 2.9 percent of the state’s population in 2010 and 2.4 percent of the state workforce.
Lawyers working for Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, argued that the plaintiffs failed to show bias across state government.
“The record simply does not support Plaintiffs’ charge that some monolithic, immutable force of bias infected the decisions made by every department, at every step, for every job, for every year of the class period,” they wrote in a final brief last month.