Md. budget cuts delay job bias probes HRC's effectiveness is questioned

April 06, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Budget cuts at the Maryland Human Relations Commission have resulted in delays that are so long that many have begun questioning whether it can effectively protect the rights of workers, those involved with the agency said yesterday.

Claimants, their attorneys and HRC staffers agreed that since the state cut the agency's appropriation in half to $1.7 million last year, the amount of time it takes the agency to investigate and resolve a claim has doubled to 12 months.

Carolyn Jasmin, who heads the investigation department of the independent agency, said callers become "very, very upset" when she tells them it will take her staffers about a year to find out whether a discrimination or harassment charge has merit.

She doesn't blame them. "Justice delayed is justice denied," she said.

Staffers warn the delays will likely get worse.

Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the agency, said her office took the largest budget reduction, by percentage, of any state agency last year.

And this week's state budget agreement for the 1994 fiscal year freezes the HRC's budget at last year's reduced level. That means that the agency will continue to handle 1,200 cases a year with 14 investigators and three attorneys -- less than half the size of the old staff.

"We are already seeing the backlog of cases build up," she said.

Besides delaying justice for both individuals and companies charged with discrimination, the cuts are costing both sides money.

Prabhjot S. Kohli, a Sikh who charged Domino's Pizza with religious discrimination because it wouldn't hire him unless he shaved, said he hired his own attorney -- which has cost him about $14,000 so far -- because the HRC moved so slowly on his case.

"I felt I had to hire my own lawyer to push them," said Mr. Kohli.

Andrew C. Topping, an attorney with Hogan & Hartson who represents businesses fighting discrimination charges, said that some witnesses who have moved during the long delays must be flown back to Baltimore at the expense of defendants to give evidence.

The quality of investigations, he said, "is still wonderful, but it is slow."

But many HRC staffers worry that despite the extra witness costs, the delays are working to the advantage of employers who discriminate.

The longer a case drags on, the harder it is to prove allegations of impropriety.

Michael L. Foreman, who worked for several years as the lead attorney for the HRC and who now helps people file cases as part of his privatepractice, said yesterday that he was getting discouraged with the HRC's handling of recent cases.

Because of last year's layoffs, he's seen many cases get handed off from one investigator to another, which makes the delays even worse.

"You have to educate a new investigator from scratch," he complained. Worse, he added, "so many things have happened to the HRC recently that investigators feel they have one foot out the door" and don't seem to give cases their full attention.

As a result, Mr. Foreman said he was increasingly steering his clients to the federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which also investigates anti-discrimination laws.

"Given the drastic cuts, there is no way they can continue to do [their old] level of investigation," he said.

Although the EEOC can be faster than the state agency, many people, including Mr. Foreman, complain that the local office is swamped. As aresult, cases are sent to be investigated to staffers in Richmond or Norfolk, Va., which means witnesses are usually interviewed over the telephone, not in person.

"That is not the way to investigate," Mr. Foreman said.

Haywood Perry, EEOC deputy district director, says the Baltimore office has farmed out cases for investigation for years, and that the practice doesn't harm the quality of investigations.

In addition, though federal laws provide for bigger payments to victims of discrimination or harassment, the EEOC usually requires people to hire their own attorneys to prosecute their cases. But it is hard to get attorneys to handle run-of-the-mill discrimination cases in federal courts because most don't pay very well, Mr. Foreman said.

The advantage of filing with the HRC is that a state attorney will sue on behalf of people whose charges are backed up by an investigation.

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