April 24, 2019 at 1:16 pm PDT | by Karen Ocamb
LA City expands anti-discrimination enforcement in employment

Workers and civil rights advocates gathered on the City Hall South Steps with Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson. (Photo courtesy Wesson’s Office)

News that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up three cases centered on LGBT rights in the workplace was jarring, considering the conservative bent the Court has taken under President Trump.

This fall, the Court will hear arguments over whether Title VII, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace, protects LGBT employees, according to the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.   

 “Millions of LGBT people now rely on those federal protections, and countless businesses across the country have changed their policies to protect LGBT workers,” said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter in a press release. “A Supreme Court decision reversing these established protections would be catastrophic for LGBT people and disruptive for businesses, who would face a patchwork of conflicting state laws.”

No doubt LGBT Californians, living in arguably the most progressive state in the nation, feel protected on the job. But awareness and enforcement of non-discrimination laws are not universal nor uniform, especially given the intersectional bias experienced by LGBT people of color.       

It’s an issue Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and Councilmember Gil Cedillo took up last year after members of the Los Angeles Black Workers Center pointed out that seeking a remedy for discrimination on the job was just too costly for low income workers.

“A disproportionately high number of Blacks were and have been facing employment discrimination in the city of Los Angeles,” Jasmyne Cannick, senior advisor to Council President Wesson, told the Los Angeles Blade. “This caused the BWC to take up this issue.”

“Currently, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing is the state agency that is the first line of defense for individuals to report claims of discrimination in the workplace,” according to the LA Black Workers Center. “However, in 2016, the Department received nearly 24,000 complaints, 86% of which alleged employment discrimination. With this volume, the Department, acting alone, is not adequately funded and staffed to be the only recourse of defense against housing and workplace discrimination. In addition, confronting workplace discrimination in the judicial system is too costly for most low-wage workers. Without local enforcement, employee complaints are going unaddressed.”

Introduced on Jan. 26, 2018, the Civil and Human Rights Ordinance, co-authored by Wesson and Cedillo, was stringently vetted by LA City Attorney Mike Feuer and the Immigrant Affairs, Civil Rights and Equity Committee before the amended ordinance was passed 12-0-3 by the City Council on April 17.  Both out Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Mitch O’Farrell were absent for the vote that day.

The Ordinance will be added to the City’s administrative and municipal codes and establishes a Civil and Human Rights Commission and Executive Director, giving the City expanded authority to raise awareness about, oversee and enforce discrimination cases within its boundaries, better enabling lower-paid, black and other minority workers the ability to seek recourse for injustices they face in the workplace.

“WHEREAS, the City of Los Angeles, with its diverse population, wishes to establish public policy that promotes understanding between and among communities and to discourage discrimination that denies equal treatment to any individual because of an immutable characteristic or real or perceived status,” the Ordinance says before explaining its reach. (The Civil and Human Rights Ordinance is available as a PDF online here.)

“With this vote, we are prioritizing vital protections for LA’s black and brown workers, including women, immigrants, those who identify as LGBTQ, and Muslims,” Wesson said in a statement. “Employment should be based on a person’s merit, experience, and character, not the color of their skin, where they’re from, or who they love. A big thank you to the Los Angeles Black Worker Center for their work in getting us to this point.”

“This ordinance is designed to discourage human and civil rights violations from occurring at a local level in the City of Los Angeles and also to provide the necessary structures and remedies for the everyday resident to seek assistance should they find themselves in a position of discrimination and vulnerability,” said Cedillo. “This commission will include an Executive Director and hearing officers to ensure that each case is given the proper resources and attention it deserves.”

Wesson communications deputy Michael Tonetti notes that there is a bill winding its way through the California State Legislature that would grant local governments greater enforcement jurisdiction dealing with employment discrimination—SB 218, authored by Sen. Steven Bradford (amended on April 9). But right now, under the current California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the new Commission created by the Ordinance “will be able to address discrimination complaints related to the four protected classes in the proposed City Civil and Human Rights Law including: 1) citizenship status; 2) partnership status; 3) veteran status; and 4) employment and income status.” 

Mayor Eric Garcetti is expected to sign the Ordinance.

“Equality and belonging are values that define what it means to be an Angeleno,” Garcetti said in a statement. “We will not waver in protecting equal opportunity, rejecting bigotry, and rooting out discrimination wherever it may exist in Los Angeles. City Hall must lead by example, and I thank Council President Wesson and Councilmember Cedillo for their tireless advocacy on these issues of critical importance.”

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