An overwhelming majority of Americans believe employers practice some form of discrimination in hiring and promotions, according to a poll on workplace issues commissioned by the National Law Journal.

A majority of workers said they would be more willing now than they were five years ago to take legal action against an employer who discriminates, but less than half favor preferential treatment for women and minorities as a remedy for all cases of past discrimination.

The poll, conducted in mid-June by Penn & Schoen Associates, also found that only 10 percent of workers thought drug testing by employers was an invasion of privacy. Three-fourths of those questioned said they favored mandatory drug testing for all workers or at least for those in public safety jobs, such as police, firefighters and airline pilots.

The poll involved a random sample of 803 adults, 48 percent of whom were men. A racial breakdown showed about 82 percent were white, 10 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic. Self-described conservatives edged out liberals, 35 to 34 percent, and the balance described themselves as "moderate."

The poll comes as the Senate prepares to debate the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which is designed to overturn several recent Supreme Court rulings that made it much more difficult for individual employees to prove discrimination. The legislation, being fought by business, also would impose new penalties on employers convicted of job discrimination.

The Bush administration initially opposed the measure but has indicated a willingness to compromise.

According to the poll, 78 percent believe some, most or all employers practice some form of job discrimination, while 51 percent said they believed all or most employers discriminate in some way.

One-fourth of those polled said they had personally experienced job discrimination, but nearly half said they did nothing about it. Only 2 percent consulted a lawyer or filed a lawsuit.

But 62 percent of the people interviewed said they would be much more willing to take legal action against an employer now than they would have been five years ago.

At the same time, 55 percent said they doubted they would get a fair shake from the legal system if they did file suit, and 53 percent said they would give up their right to a court hearing in favor of arbitration on a grievance.

A solid majority -- 58 percent -- said they favored affirmative action in the workplace to remedy at least some cases of past discrimination, but a breakdown of the responses by race and sex shows a somewhat different picture. The poll showed that 67 percent of the blacks favored preferential measures in all cases, but only 44 percent of the whites did. In cases involving women, only 49 percent of the women favored preferential treatment.

Respondents were divided over another sex discrimination issue now before the Supreme Court. Forty-eight percent said they favored prohibiting all women able to bear children from working at any job that might be hazardous to a fetus, and 47 percent were opposed to such protections. Fifty-three percent of the men favored such a policy while 43 percent of the women did.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide a fetal protection case involving Johnson Controls and the United Auto Workers union.

On age discrimination, 68 percent of those questioned believed an older worker should be barred from making an age discrimination claim if he or she has signed a waiver of that right in exchange for enhanced severance or retirement benefits, even if the individual did not have a lawyer review the waiver before signing. As the work force ages, such issues are of growing importance.

The poll was jointly sponsored by the National Law Journal and Lexis, the legal information service of the Meade Corp.