Retired Calif. Capt. Fights For Anti-Discrimination Bill

April 3, 2013
A bill winding through the Calif. legislature seeks to end discrimination based on family care-giving responsibilities. A former Bakersfield fire captain has put a public face on the issue.

April 03--A retired Bakersfield Fire Department captain is helping lead a statewide effort to end employment discrimination based on a person's family caregiving responsibilities.

Derek Tisinger, 53, who retired from the fire department in 2009, testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee in Sacramento on Tuesday afternoon in support of Senate Bill 404.

Introduced by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, the bill would prohibit employers from treating mothers and fathers of young children -- or employees who need to care for aging parents -- differently from other employees.

It's an issue Tisinger has been passionate about for nearly two decades, after winning an employment discrimination lawsuit against the city of Bakersfield in 1997, only to have it overturned in 2002.

"It will all be worth it if even one person doesn't have to go through what I went through," Tisinger said Tuesday after testifying before the Senate committee for the third time in several years.

"This bill does not ask for any special treatment," Jackson said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

On the contrary, she said, it simply adds familial responsibility to race, ethnicity, national origin, religion and other protected classes in the workplace.

But introducing new laws and regulations to the myriad number already in existence in California can impose additional burdens on employers, say business consultants and advocates.

Tisinger's battle with the city started after the breakup of his marriage left him with sole custody of his three children. He repeatedly used sick days and swapped shifts to free up time to be with his three sons, a practice that was common and within department policy, he said.

When he failed to receive a promotion to the rank of captain, Tisinger filed a lawsuit against the city in 1997, charging that he was next in line for promotion -- but was passed over because he was a single father.

"All I was asking for was my promotion and my back wages," he said. "It was about the principle."

Tisinger won in local courts, but a California appellate court in Fresno overturned the jury verdict.

The decision by the Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, stated that the evidence in the July 2000 trial was not strong enough to prove discrimination.

"There is no doubt that the record contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could infer Tisinger was passed over because of his child care responsibilities," the opinion reads.

"However, there was no evidence that he was passed over because he was single."

He lost on a technicality, Tisinger said, a loophole he hopes the new law will close.

Reached late Tuesday afternoon, Bakersfield City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said she couldn't comment in detail about the case as she didn't have the chance to review the file.

However, she said the city was obviously pleased with the court of appeals decision, and she expressed confidence that there were valid reasons for Tisinger being passed up for promotion that "had nothing to do with him wanting to take care of his kids."

While an earlier version of the bill passed the California legislature a few years ago, it was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Robin Paggi, training coordinator at Worklogic HR and a contributing writer for The Californian, said current Gov. Jerry Brown has already approved broadening anti-discrimination laws in housing. That suggests Brown would be open to SB 404 as well, if it passes, Paggi said.

But new workplace laws can place the burden on employers to stay abreast of new developments and to train employees when necessary.

"They can cost employees money," Paggi said of new workplace laws," she said, "especially when they don't comply with them."

Paggi said she isn't making a judgment on whether the bill is a good idea or a bad one. But it's her job to help employers navigate through the complexities of an ever-changing environment.

"That's why HR consultants and employment attorneys have jobs," she said. "Because it's always shifting."

The bill passed through committee on a 5-2 vote Tuesday afternoon, Tisinger said. Barring unforseen obstacles, it should make it to the governor's desk by late summer.

Copyright 2013 - The Bakersfield Californian

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