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L.A. considers its own Civil Rights Commission

Unemployment for black workers in Los Angeles is 16% — three times the national average.

That figure is disturbing, especially since black workers earn only three-quarters of what Caucasian workers earn, with the wage gap even wider for black women. Also, employment in the city’s public sector — the backbone of L.A.’s African-American middle class — is down by 12% for black workers.

Employment discrimination is a critical reason why black workers in Los Angeles and across the country continue to be underrepresented in and excluded from living wage jobs. In California, African Americans make up only 6% of the population, yet almost 70% of the state’s workforce discrimination claims are based on race and disability.

Protecting black workers from employment discrimination is a critical need in Los Angeles, particularly given that more than half of the city’s black population is either unemployed or underemployed.

Take Laverne Frazier is a 59-year-old African-American registered nurse in Los Angeles who has more than two decades of experience in her profession. Despite her seasoned career and skilled job performance at a health care center that employed few professionals of color, Frazier continually endured unfair treatment by her supervisor.

Within months, Frazier was abruptly fired from her job, receiving no substantive reason for her termination. With no union representation or financial resources to retain legal assistance, Frazier was left unemployed in the L.A. job market as a single, middle-aged woman without any income support.

What makes her story so common for black workers in California is that the judiciary process is unequal for those filing racial discrimination cases. Victims of discrimination who seek remedies for wage theft, for example, have a local authority to file their claims and thus have a greater chance of getting their cases investigated and resolved.

Consider José-Manuel González-Cedillo, a Hispanic gay man who was wrongfully terminated from his banking job last year. González-Cedillo suffered months of harassment by his co-workers due to what he believed was rooted in his sexual orientation.

Shortly after he was accused of an unproven claim that he vehemently denied, he was fired. But he was able to submit his complaint to a local Office of Wage Standards, and he is now expected to recover more than $8,000 in back wages.

While González-Cedillo is able to receive some level of justice, workers like Frazier who experience racial discrimination deserve equaljustice and protection.

To better protect black workers from workplace discrimination, it’s time for Los Angeles to join the ranks of other major U.S. cities by enforcing discrimination protections on the local level. 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.

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.

Confronting workplace discrimination in the judicial system is too costly for most low-wage workers, specifically black workers who are more than 2.5 times likely to file an employment discrimination complaint but have half the chance of finding remedies in the court system. Without local enforcement, employee complaints are going unaddressed.

Empowering local governments to enforce workplace discrimination laws in their own cities is the only real solution to this problem. Cities have closer ties to their local employers, better positioning them to investigate complaints where the discriminatory conduct occurred.

When cities are able to enforce California’s fair employment laws, workers who experience discrimination can have their claims reviewed timelier, get back to work sooner and recover lost wages. Other cities, like San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Chicago, have followed similar models.

The #LocalEnforcementNow movement is working toward bringing this model to California. Led by the Los Angeles Black Worker Center and championed by a diverse coalition of partners across the state, this movement is fighting for new legislation — Senate Bill 218 — that would enable cities throughout California to combat employment discrimination occurring in their territories.

SB 218 is now on the state senate’s floor, and if approved, will serve as a historic step to providing discrimination protection to California’s workers at the local level.

Meanwhile, a city of Los Angeles ordinance is taking an unprecedented stand against discrimination. The Civil and Human Rights Ordinance modernizes civil rights protections by overseeing discrimination cases that occur within the city of Los Angeles, giving black workers and others in the city an opportunity to redress their injustice at the local level.

If adopted by the Los Angeles City Council, the ordinance will establish a Civil and Human Rights Commission to investigate and adjudicate discrimination cases that are filed in the city. This local enforcement commission will have sufficient investigative powers, including the right to issue subpoenas, access workplaces and expand the scope of charges based on an investigation.

Please join us in our fight to localize the enforcement of workplace discrimination laws by urging California’s lawmakers to approve SB 218 and L.A. City Council members to vote for the Civil and Human Rights Ordinance. With your support, we can move closer to strengthening how cities like Los Angeles protect and defend the civil rights of all its workers.

Janel Bailey is the co-executive director for organizing and programs for the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.