JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens says he wants lawmakers to send him a bill to protect private employers from legal challenges if they give preference to veterans in hiring and promotions.
The proposed policy change is part of Greitens' larger push to, as he describes it, "make this the best state in the country for veterans." Greitens campaigned heavily on his military experience as a Navy SEAL and pledged to help other former service members.
But two St. Louis employment attorneys say rolling back a bill Greitens signed last year that they say makes it harder for people with disabilities to sue for discrimination would benefit veterans more.
Greitens, who founded a charity for veterans after his own military service, told The Associated Press that Missouri employers now face potential lawsuits for prioritizing veterans in hiring.
Spokesman Parker Briden said that's because most veterans historically have been men, so giving preference to veterans could expose employers to discrimination lawsuits under federal equal employment laws.
But the governor said there's an exception for states that pass laws allowing such a practice. At least 38 other states have adopted similar policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"It is a step toward helping veterans," said Cary Kellett, the Department of Missouri commander for the American Legion. "It's not so much the larger businesses but the smaller businesses, the ones that might be afraid of a lawsuit one way or the other because they don't have the money for the big corporate law offices to support them."
Bills filed so far in the Missouri Legislature also would let private businesses give priority to spouses of veterans with disabilities or spouses of deceased veterans.
The likelihood that businesses now would be sued for giving preference to employing veterans is unclear.
St. Louis employment attorneys Jon Berns and Ben Westhoff said they've never heard of such a case and said private employers now have the ability to hire veterans. Westhoff said it would be "exceedingly difficult" to win in court because of general good will toward veterans.
O'Fallon Republican Rep. Nick Schroer, who filed a bill for veteran hiring preferences, said he's also not aware of any lawsuits so far but added that employers have complained to him about concern over potential legal issues for giving veterans priority.
"This is more of a proactive measure to make sure our courts aren't being used for suing somebody who wanted to give preferential treatment to somebody who's protected and served our country," Schroer said.
Berns said veterans most often face employment issues after they've been hired. He cited unfair firing or not making accommodations either for time-off needed to serve or disabilities from service.
Both attorneys recommended strengthening employment protections for veterans, either by banning discrimination against them in the Missouri Human Rights Act or rolling back provisions in a new law signed by Greitens last year that they say makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to sue for discrimination.
The new law requires people suing for employment discrimination to prove that their protected class status – such as race, gender, age or disability – was "the motivating factor" for an employment decision. Previously those suing only had to prove that it was a contributing factor.
"I think more than anything it's a political talking point for the governor," Westhoff said about the proposed legislation.
Other veterans' policies on Greitens' agenda include reducing new-business fees for veterans. Greitens said the state needs to "make it as easy as possible for our veterans to start businesses when they return."