Possible Civil Rights Reform Under Obama Could Benefit Businesses

By Max Mihelich

Jan. 24, 2013

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama outlined several civil rights issues he hopes to focus on during his new four-year term.

The president spoke on women’s rights in his speech, deriding income disparities. “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” he said.

For Steven Loewengart, a regional managing partner at Columbus, Ohio-based law firm Fisher and Phillips, women’s role in the workplace is changing. “Women are starting to take the lead in the workplace,” he says. Considering more women are achieving higher education than men, Loewengart believes businesses that recognize the skills and talent of women and reward them as equally as men will be able to be more competitive.

Obama also touched on gay rights, saying, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”

Loewengart called Obama’s position on gay rights “very important” for employers, pointing to the president’s unwillingness to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman. However, he says he doesn’t believe Obama will actively pursue an appeal of DOMA since the constitutionality of a California same-sex marriage law is now being challenged in the Supreme Court. “I think [Obama] will take his cue from the Supreme Court first,” Loewengart said. Until any federal legislation is ratified granting gay people the right to marry, employers should continue to draft their policies concerning gay employees with deference to their state and local anti-discrimination laws.

A possibility for immigration reform was also a topic the president hinted at in his address, describing a U.S. that remains a beacon of hope and prosperity throughout the world, and a U.S. that is able to effectively use the talent of immigrants to keep the country competitive in the global economy. “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

The controversial E-Verify system that a total of 20 states use to verify an individual’s eligibility to work in the U.S. is “often ineffective and offensive to minority groups,” said Loewengart who believes the United States’ growing need for both highly skilled technology and seasonal workers should drive any possible immigration reform movement in Congress.

Obama called for “collective action” by all Americans to help the slowly recovering economy continue to grow. “No single person can train all the math and science teachers. We’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.”

Robert Pollin, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said he believes businesses should be committed to providing opportunities for all people to thrive as it would allow for businesses to thrive in return. “Businesses should stretch as far as they can to hire people, pay them decently, and give them an opportunity to flourish at their jobs. We know that companies that do this can be highly competitive, precisely by harvesting the gains from higher productivity that accrue through creating a workplace that is respectful of workers as people and their rights as employees,” he said in an email.

Loewengart added that businesses can benefit from adopting more inclusive policies regardless of federal legislation.”Any time there are restrictions on the hiring base, companies are missing on talent since great talent comes from all groups of people,” he said.

Pollin echoes this sentiment. He said companies and their human resources departments should remain open-minded and flexible on civil rights issues. “There is self-interest at stake here: If they are closed-minded and inflexible, they will certainly be out-competed over time by firms that are open to new things, including creating opportunities for people who may not fit one’s conception of ‘mainstream’ employee.”

But not everyone agreed with Obama’s agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called the president’s speech, “basically a liberal agenda directed at an America that we still believe is center-right.”

Max Mihelich is Workforce’s editorial intern. Comment below or email

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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