A ballot initiative that would reinstate affirmative action in California could change the makeup of who gets hired in schools, police departments and other government agencies around the state.

The initiative — known as Proposition 16 — passed the Legislature earlier this year and will show up on the November ballot.

Much of the debate over the initiative in the Legislature focused on education and ensuring that people of different backgrounds have an opportunity to succeed. Some of the highest profile tests of affirmative action in court recently also have centered on universities, such as a 2016 Supreme Court decision that allowed the University of Texas to continue considering ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions.

If voters approve Proposition 16, advocates say California government agencies and schools also will be able to create recruiting and promotion programs targeted for women and ethnic groups who are underrepresented in public agencies.

Those polices were banned in California in 1996, when voters approved Proposition 209. The initiative said the state couldn’t “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”

California unions that represent public employees — including AFSCME, SEIU and the California Teachers Association — have endorsed the initiative to restore affirmative action.

Their leaders say affirmative action polices could help agencies provide paths to employment and higher-paying jobs for people who otherwise could be overlooked.

“It’s being intentional about recruiting into that series, perhaps creating training internally so we’re cross-training and moving women from lower-paid titles to higher-paid titles,” said Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME 3299, a blue-collar union for University of California employees.

Women earn less in California government

Lybarger, a gardener at UC Berkeley, said her union found that men tended to be over-represented in the best-paying job classifications it represents. “It’s important to recruit women and people of color into these titles.”

That trend is reflected in California state government, which employs about 240,000 people and hires workers through a process intended to prevent favoritism.

Despite efforts to broaden applicant pools, salary surveys by the California Department of Human Resources consistently show that men in state government earn more than women.

The better-paying jobs in state government — such as engineers, California Highway Patrol officers, firefighters and correctional officers — tend to be career tracks that have majorities of men. Women have gravitated to lower-paying fields in social services and government analysis.

In 2017, women in state government tended to earn 20.5% less than men. At the time, the Government Operations Agency estimated it would take 27 years to close the gap in average earnings.

The latest census data from the California Department of Human Resources shows that in 2018, Hispanic employees were underrepresented among the state’s labor force compared to the general population. White and Black workers, on the other hand, had a higher percentage of civil service workers than the general population. Together, they made up nearly 54% of all civil servants and 42% of the general population.

State lawmakers have urged the California agencies to do more to encourage diversity, but they’re limited by Prop. 209.

Agencies can focus recruitment, build talent development programs and provide training on how to remove systemic barriers to success.

“CalHR works to train on merit-based hiring processes by steering managers and supervisors away from using ‘gut feelings’ for hiring decisions (which can lead to bias and discrimination) and instead have them focus on quantifiable and job-related criteria to evaluate applicants,” CalHR spokesman Andrew LaMar said.

What affirmative action looked like

Before California banned affirmative action, government agencies used a number of different policies to create a diverse workforce. Some set hiring goals, aiming to recruit minorities into certain departments.

That ended in 2001 when a state appeals court sided with former University of California Regent Ward Connerly against the State Personnel Board. Connerly also was the main advocate for Prop. 209, the initiative that banned affirmative action.

Another 1998 lawsuit against the State Personnel Board ended a practice that had allowed women and minorities to be considered for for state jobs even if they did not place in the top three ranks of candidates, according to 2008 study published by the Thelton Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley.

If Proposition 16 passes, experts say these kinds of programs again could become legal.

“You will see more ethnic diversity. You may even see a more balanced gender ratio,” wrote Margaret Chin, an associate professor at Hunter College and the author of “Stuck: Why Asian Americans Don’t Reach the Top of the Corporate Ladder.” “All of this can potentially give California a more diverse group of leaders which according to much research is also leadership that is the most effective.”

The initiative is not expected to lead to quotas, which have been been shot down as unconstitutional in court over decades.

One of the Legislature’s opponents to the new proposition, Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine, said he fears affirmative action would give minority groups “preferential treatment” when it comes to government hiring.

“Rather than qualifications,” he said, “they’re forced to hire based on backgrounds. This will complicate so much.”

Others, like Sen. Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, criticize the proposition’s approach to combating systematic racism. “The idea that in 2020 we would now decide to combat modern discrimination by legalizing discrimination in state government is poor public policy,” she said in a statement.

But advocates say affirmative action in government hiring wouldn’t bring in preferential treatment. Instead, they say, it would open up opportunities for recruitment and outreach that couldn’t otherwise happen.

Aside from unions, the initiative has also has support for government employers, including the University of California Board of Regents and the League of California Cities.

“This measure is fundamentally a local control issue in so far as its passage and approval by the voters would allow cities the flexibility to craft programs that could meet the employment and contracting needs of their communities,” a legislative representative wrote in a letter to California lawmakers.


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