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Employment Lawyer: Bill Encouraging Hiring Vets Could Shirk Other Protected Classes

Soldier cutout
Jessica Palombo

When Rep. Ricardo Rangel (D-Kissimmee) returned to civilian life from military duty in 2010, he says he had the same difficulty finding a job many veterans experience. So when Rep. Clay Ingram (R-Pensacola) offered up a bill encouraging companies to hire veterans, Rangel was excited to vote for it.

“It’ll give the opportunity for some of these private sector employers to actually go ahead and start putting in place their own criterias (sic) and their own program to assist veterans to find work, so thank you very much,” Rangel says.

And Steve Murray, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, says his agency views the measure as a way to lower the veteran unemployment rate.

“Our agency supports such an endeavor. We think it’s good to hire veterans," Murray says. "We have seen nationally, of course, the veteran unemployment rate be a little bit higher than the rate of corresponding civilian employment.”

But employment lawyers weren’t as enthusiastic.

“The first thing I thought when I read this this morning was ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions,’” says Travis Hollifield, who runs his own employment law practice in Winter Park. He worries the law could engender racism or simply fly in the face of existing federal law which protects the rights of several classes of people when they apply for a job.

“So somebody for instance who does not like or does not want to hire Jewish people or black people or people over a certain age could potentially discriminate against those protected classes and use this statute as cover.”

Ingram, the bill’s author, acknowledged the current climate is one that cares about equal employment opportunity

“As of now, private employers could offer preference to veterans," Ingram says. "But few would be comfortable doing so because the EEOC has said there’s the potential for disparate impact claims.”

But his bill specifies the Florida statute could not be construed as a violation of EEOC laws. But Hollifield says it’s not that simple and notes federal anti-discrimination laws can’t simply be broken by adding a line to state statute invalidating them. He says Ingram’s bill would give veterans preference not otherwise granted to them.

“It’s elevating a class that is not currently protected under the anti-discrimination laws and elevating it over those protected characteristics that are,” he says.

Still, the bill passed the House Veteran and Military Affairs Subcommittee unanimously Wednesday, with no one speaking in opposition.