The chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said yesterday that because of this month's Supreme Court rulings upholding minority hiring goals for private employers who discriminate, the commission will resume efforts to impose such remedies.
The commission abandoned the use of hiring goals and timetables last fall at the behest of Chairman Clarence Thomas and two of the other five commissioners, who endorsed the Reagan administration's view that such targets amount to illegal quotas. But Thomas disarmed critics yesterday by announcing the policy shift at a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing on whether to reconfirm him for a second four-year term as chairman.
"The Supreme Court has ruled, and as far as I'm concerned that's that," Thomas said. "Whatever reservations I have are purely personal . . . . That's the law of the land, whether I like it or not."
Thomas said the commission's enforcement attorneys will be told "that they are now to seek goals and timetables, and race- and sex-conscious remedies, permissible under the ruling of the Supreme Court." Pressed by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), Thomas said that "the EEOC will make a clear statement to our people that goals and timetables are one form of relief" available under employment discrimination laws.
The Washington Post reported in February that the EEOC had abandoned the use of goals and timetables without any vote or public announcement. Thomas said then that as a practical matter the commission was no longer approving litigation settlements involving hiring goals, and that he believed that such goals "denigrate an entire class of people."
The Supreme Court, in two rulings July 2, endorsed the use of affirmative action to remedy past employment discrimination and rejected the Reagan administration's argument that only specific victims of discrimination are entitled to such relief. One of the cases, involving a New York sheet-metal workers' union that a federal judge had ordered to meet minority hiring targets, originally had been brought by the EEOC.
The commission later switched sides and joined the Justice Department in urging the Supreme Court to strike down the hiring goals.
The EEOC had made broad use of hiring goals since the early 1970s, and such targets became a standard practice during the Carter administration.
Thomas' remarks yesterday differed in tone from those made earlier by Justice Department officials, who interpreted the Supreme Court rulings narrowly and said the court had prescribed hiring goals as a possible remedy in only the most egregious cases of discrimination. The impact of the new EEOC policy will depend on how frequently the commission decides to seek such relief in its lawsuits against employers.
Thomas said it was important to monitor discrimination settlements and that he did not want to "just give someone goals and timetables that they can shove in a drawer . . . . Just to have goals and timetables every time there's discrimination, not even the Supreme Court said you could do that."
Thomas, a Yale Law School graduate and former aide to Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) who became EEOC chairman in 1982, calmly rebutted Democratic criticism yesterday and is likely to win reconfirmation. Thomas has said that his profile is so low that he is often confused with Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the combative chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Thomas said he had "a thankless job" and has been subjected to "brutal criticism" for changing the direction of the EEOC. The Senate committee in May rejected the nomination of Thomas' chief of staff, Jeffrey I. Zuckerman, to be the agency's general counsel.
Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said the agency had been a financial and administrative "disaster" before Thomas improved its management and increased its litigation caseload. "He has served without applause and without self-indulgent fanfare," Hatch said.
Ranking Democrat Edward M. Kennedy (Mass) repeatedly pressed Thomas on his plans to change the commission's guidelines for dealing with conduct that has an "adverse impact" on minorities. Court rulings have held such conduct illegal regardless of whether an employer intended to discriminate.
Kennedy noted that Thomas told the Office of Management and Budget in June 1985 that he would propose new guidelines that "will recognize that statistical disparities are not tantamount to discrimination." Thomas said he has not decided on the proposed changes.
"You mean after we confirm you, then you'll go ahead and do it?" Kennedy asked. "This is something extremely important . . . . Why can't you tell us?"
Thomas said he believes that statistics are only one way of measuring adverse impact on minorities.