It's a big deal, she said, because she's the spouse who had the health
insurance and nobody's hiring like they did before the current economic
downturn. She's got a decade of experience in her field, but says she's
thinking about leaving it because she's gotten so disillusioned.
I'm not using this woman's name because I can't really prove what
happened. But what I can tell readers is this: Even if she had been the
victim of age discrimination, she has limited recourse under Maryland
law, because the Maryland Human Relations Commission has no jurisdiction
over firms with 15 or fewer employees.
As a result, the only remedy for workers who feel they've been unfairly
discriminated against because of their age, race or beliefs is to hire a
That's not cheap, according to Catherine Skaggs, a senior investigator
for the MHRC.
"They're not human-service providers, they're attorneys whose job is to
see that the law is carried out. And it takes an enormous amount of
preparation for such cases," she said.
Skaggs, who covers cases in Frederick, Allegany, Washington and Garrett
counties, said that she gets at a call at least once a day from someone
complaining about something that happened in a small firm.
When she tells them about the 15-employee rule, Skaggs says "People say
to us, 'What difference should it make? I've been violated.' "
But the law is the law, and although some Maryland counties, including
Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard, have their own commissions and
laws that allow investigators there to probe smaller firms, Washington
County does not.
Legislation to change that statewide was introduced several years ago,
according to Glendora Hughes, MHRC's chief counsel, but it went nowhere.
I'm not surprised. In the absence of some horrendous, well-publicized
case, it's something the average state lawmaker just wouldn't take on,
given the opposition sure to come from small employers.
A lot of the complaints that come to Skaggs from small offices are not
really discrimination, at least not the way most people understand it.
"Often it comes down to personalities, office politics. Those kinds of
things go on in everybody's office every day," she said, but added that
these are not the bulk of the cases.
"Although in the past few years we have seen an increase in the age
claims, I think race (discrimination) is still the number one category,"
Pressed for some anecdotes about typical cases, Skaggs wouldn't provide
any. To do so, she said, even without using names would subject her to
prosecution and fines under state law.
She did say that in such cases, "the burden of proof is extensive,
depending on what kind of a claim it is."
Sexual harassment, for example, usually requires that some third party
witness the objectionable behavior, she said. In age discrimination
cases, employment records often tell the story. It's difficult for
someone in their late 50s to claim age discrimination if the person who
was actually hired is 62.
Even though Maryland is what's called an "at will" state, where
employees without contracts can be terminated at the will of the
employer, Skaggs says there is a catch. Employers cannot choose to
excercise their will to terminate if doing so would discriminate against
people because of race, religion or disability.
Skaggs emphasized that the 15-employee rule doesn't prevent someone who
feels they have a case from going forward with it. They just have to
hire the lawyer and proceed on their own.
Doesn't sound like much of a happy ending, does it? The woman whose
story began this column has gotten unemployment, but she's still seeking
The law will probably be changed eventually, but too late to help her.
But if and when that happens, the advice Skaggs offers to larger
employers will make sense for the small shops as well:
"Your best defense (against complaints) is to hire the most qualilied
person, treat them all fairly and administer the rules equally."