In one of the first major moves by a federal agency focused on civil rights enforcement, the Department of Labor said Wednesday that it was exploring a method of drawing on the confidential database of private employers in order to investigate discrimination complaints from black workers.
The system would include details about the employers, including the racial makeup of their workforces and wage disparities, and some of those employers would be more likely to encounter workers with claims, a Labor Department official said.
The department sent letters to 335 companies and agencies, including banks, hospitals and retailers, asking for their information to be shared. It was unclear how many would turn over the information, and how many employees would be involved. The letters, which were not legally binding, are just the first step in that process.
The department has sought help before to investigate discrimination cases. In 2016, the department reached out to employers in its database about pending discrimination complaints, and officials said many complied.
The department now has a new director, Maria Echaveste, who was an adviser to Hillary Clinton and who has led investigations of the powerful California teacher’s union.
Officials are still studying potential ways of collecting a broader range of information in the investigation of discrimination complaints. Officials said they would likely seek documents and data on unions, employers that pay workers through scheduling and non-union employers.
Under the new investigation, the department will expand its monitoring powers beyond just age, sex and race to prohibit bias in pay, hiring and promotion. Those are considered fundamental aspects of federal civil rights law.
The department’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently extended similar protections to many types of sexual harassment and to equal pay.
Complaints that targeted employers with racial discrimination were a priority of the department’s inspector general. But the department has been accused of using disparate impact arguments, where it argues the law is being violated because fewer black workers are employed in a particular company or being paid less than white workers.
In most discrimination cases, the government used the disparate impact analysis to stop wages and job protections from being imposed on a group of employees, such as blacks or immigrants.
In 2015, a federal judge dismissed a racial employment discrimination case brought by a group of black employees at a Radisson hotel in Washington, saying the department’s effort to separate the workers was illegal.