Is the Minnesota Department of Human Rights terribly behind in its work to address discrimination and unfair practices? Or is it making progress toward reducing its persistent backlog of cases?
Some of both is happening as the department works to respond to all claims and to clear out an accumulation of older complaints. The agency’s policy of considering all claims and giving an explanation when no probable cause is found serves citizens well. At the same time, new resources allocated to the agency should help move cases through more quickly.
A recent news report told the story of a local man who filed a complaint with the department, claiming he was fired because of his race. He said the department took more than 14 months to even look at his case, then determined in less than a week that it would not pursue the claim. That time frame is not unusual, according to department statistics, which indicate that it takes an average of 426 days to reach a determination, the longest turnaround time since 2003.
Yet the department also recently reported that it had improved efficiency and is on track to reduce its backlog.
When Commissioner Kevin Lindsey took the job in 2011, he changed the policy to provide an explanation for all dismissals. That change meant increased investigation times and staff member caseloads.
Lindsey says that even though about 70 to 75 percent of claims are not pursued by the department, those who file them deserve to know why. Comparing backlogs from the “docket and dismiss’’ days to the current system is like comparing “apples and oranges,’’ he added.
Backlogs are not unusual within city, state and federal human and civil-rights departments. Minnesota’s agency was created in the late 1960s and has come under fire a number of times over the years for not moving cases through quickly enough. Some have even suggested gutting or eliminating the function altogether.
That would be a mistake. Minnesota’s agency has been affected by state cutbacks over the years, and today it operates with half the staff it had a decade ago. It has absorbed those cuts and improved efficiency during a time when the state has become more diverse than ever.
Research has demonstrated that Minnesota suffers comparatively large “gaps” and disparities among various groups on various measures, and that these gaps cannot be completely explained by differences in income or education. In other words, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination still can affect whether people are treated fairly.
That’s why human-rights agencies still merit support. In many cases, they are the only place a person or business can turn to either prove or disprove bias.
Recently, the state department has negotiated settlements for a disabled woman who was not allowed to bring her service animal into a restaurant, for another woman whose employer failed to make accommodations for her after an injury and for a person who was sexually harassed by an employer.
About 60 to 65 percent of the complaints received by the state are job-related — mostly involving alleged discrimination in the areas of age, gender, race and disability. With about 38 employees, the department costs about $3.5 million annually.
That’s much less than it would cost over time in legal fees and court resources if most of these cases went directly to court. In support of the agency, this year the governor and Legislature agreed to add two investigators to the department. Those individuals will come on board soon. That should help improve efficiency and clear more cases, which in turn will reduce the financial burden on both complainants and respondents.