hate.jpgIf you’ve been listening to the news the last few days you probably think we’re all a bunch of raving mad intolerant lunatics who hate each other and are hell bent on shooting each other through the eyes, literally and metaphorically. And a report just released by the federal government regarding discrimination at work only seems to back up this perception.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported yesterday that discrimination claims in the United States hit record levels in fiscal year 2010, nearing 100,000 charges filed by employees, and the big gains came in religious and race bias, ageism and among disabled workers.

“Discrimination continues to be a substantial problem for too many job seekers and workers, and we must continue to build our capacity to enforce the laws that ensure that workplaces are free of unlawful bias,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline Berrien.

Indeed, the numbers are disturbing but are we a more bigoted society today, and thus a more bigoted workplace? The answer may be surprising.

There are a host of reasons the EEOC and labor law experts attribute to the rise but “we have no empirical evidence as what is driving the uptick in charges,” said Justine Lisser, an EEOC senior attorney-advisor and spokeswoman.

Tough economic conditions have put employers in the driver’s seat, allowing them the pick of the litter when it comes to job applicants. Unfortunately, often times workers of another race, or older workers, or those who have physical limitations end up at the bottom on the list.

“With respect to whether employers are more apt to discriminate because they will have a huge pool of workers to chose from, we heard testimony from the Department of Labor at our November Commission meeting on age discrimination to suggest that, at least for older workers, this might be true with respect to hiring as it takes older workers twice as long to find new employment after losing a job compared to younger workers,” she maintained. “It is also possible that the same thinking might apply to hiring people with disabilities–which you’ll note had the highest percentage increase of any category, over 17%. When there’s huge pool of workers to chose from, employers may revert to stereotypes about certain classes of people — ‘he’s too old to learn our system’ ‘why should we bother with her when we’ll have to give her an accommodation’ — and not hire them. Again, this is speculation, not fact.”

There is also the growing diversity in the workplace, especially when it comes to religion, which may be creating tensions and as a result more charges of bias. Clearly religious charges of bias rose after September 11, 2001, and I recently wrote about Muslim discrimination increasing after the mosque brouhaha in New York.

Also, you can’t help but wonder what the anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric, so heightened in Arizona has meant for those workers.

Another big factor is labor regulators have awakened following a long slumber under the Bush administration. Heading by worker crusader Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and given the mandate from the Obama administration to fight for worker’s rights, suddenly federal agencies, including the EEOC and the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division are out there talking about employee rights and enforcing employees rights. Such a reawakening may also be contributing to the high number of bias charges.

But there’s one question that has not been asked about rising discrimination claims, and frankly, I figured no one at the EEOC or any government agency would have the guts to answer. The question that many of us probably have on our minds, and I posed above:

Are we more prejudice today and is that infiltrating the nation’s offices, factories, etc?

I was lucky to get Lisser in a talkative mood and she offered her take on this, but stressed that this was her opinion based on her experience, which included 25 years with the EEOC.

“When the EEOC first opened its doors 45 years ago, there were overtly segregated jobs by race in many places, especially in the South; women were barred from large swathes of job categories, or days and times of working at a job; people were forced into mandatory retirement; and people with disabilities were not even considered that they could be discriminated against,” she said.

Institutionalized bias has declined, she continued, “which isn’t to say we don’t have egregious cases of nooses int he workplace or someone saying ‘we don’t want wetbacks at our firm.’ But to say as a society in the workplace we are more bias now than int he past, I don’t think it is.”

“People don’t realize how far we’ve come,” she lamented.

It’s a great reality check for us all, no? With all the finger-pointing and name-calling going on right now, we probably need a reminder that we’ve been slowly grinding our way to a more civil daily grind.

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