A disabled man isn’t allowed to bring a service animal into a restaurant. At a retail company, a 67-year-old with outstanding performance reviews is laid off because of his age. At a male-dominated manufacturing plant, a female employee is regularly the object of lewd, sexual remarks, creating a hostile work environment.
All are examples of cases the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) currently handles. Addressing those kinds of fairness and compliance issues is the reason state and federal human rights laws were created 50 years ago. And there are still good reasons to ensure that effective state human rights departments are well-supported. Minnesota lawmakers should keep that in mind as they consider budget allocations for the 2017 legislative session. More than ever, the agency is needed to help promote equal opportunity and equity for all Minnesotans.
Here’s why: Although hate crimes overall have decreased since 2010, hate crimes directed at Muslims are up in Minnesota, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. And complaints related to race and religion make up only a fraction of the cases the agency handles.
MDHR’s duties by state statute have expanded recently to include new “ban the box’’ rules that make sure employers don’t ask about criminal history on initial employment applications, as well as monitoring compliance with the state’s antibullying law. Gov. Mark Dayton’s equity initiatives also added to the department’s workload.
Some suggest that state cases could be handled by either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or city departments of human rights. But that’s not practical and would leave many Minnesotans unserved. The federal EEOC reviews only employment cases; Minnesota law gives MDHR broader authority to evaluate discrimination claims in areas including public accommodation, health care, education, lending practices and housing.
Only two Minnesota cities — St. Paul and Minneapolis — investigate complaints within their municipal boundaries, and roughly two-thirds of the complaints MDHR receives come from suburban and outstate residents.
To do its work, the state agency has about 40 employees to investigate discrimination complaints and diversity hiring goals. That’s half the number it had 20 years ago, when it covered fewer areas. Under the leadership of Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, who was hired in 2011, the agency has expanded its responsibilities and improved efficiency.
When Republicans last controlled both the Minnesota House and Senate, they proposed cutting the agency’s budget by nearly two-thirds, but Dayton vetoed the bill and the office received its full funding request of $3.2 million.
And just last week, MDHR announced that a new enforcement officer will now staff a St. Cloud office full time. That needed addition came after the Legislature last year approved $180,000 for the office. Previously, the office was staffed twice a month despite larger numbers of complaints.
The additional funding was championed by Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, who recognized the need for more human rights help in his district. With the new GOP-majority Legislature set to convene next month, that same bipartisan spirit of support should prevail when MDHR’s annual funding request is considered.