April 29, 2011 – A long-time civil rights advocate says it is “sobering” in her current position as an EEOC Commissioner to see how much outright discrimination still exists in the nation’s workplaces today.
Chai Feldblum spoke Friday at a policy forum on “The Future of Civil Rights in the Workplace” co-sponsored by the University of Houston Law Center’s Health Law & Policy Institute. A law professor on leave from the Georgetown University Law Center, Feldblum joined the five-member Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2010. Long active in anti-discrimination and AIDS efforts, she played a leading role in drafting the ground-breaking Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as well as working in behalf of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. She also has long been active in efforts to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Feldblum told the forum audience that she believes much of the discrimination in the workplace today is unintentional, stemming from a lack of perception and understanding on the part of employers and managers.
She cited a 2008 case in which a young Muslim woman was rejected for a job because she wore a hijab, or head scarf, violating the store’s policy prohibiting head coverings. The manager noted on the interview form that she did not have the right “look” for the upscale store. Feldblum said the retail chain most likely wanted a uniform appearance among its sales staff and did not intend to discriminate specifically against Muslims. But, the manager failed to understand that the scarf was an integral part of the woman’s religious beliefs and not just a fashion choice such as a baseball cap. Under the law, she said, “people should be able to live as a Muslim, not just be a Muslim.” Similarly, Feldblum said, as the first openly gay EEOC commissioner, she feels “gay people should be able to play by the same rules as straight people,” right down to the family pictures on their desk.
EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum says the next five years are critical for the agency as it takes greater account of the evermore diversified workplace and lets employers know that “it’s a whole new world” in dealing with employees.
Feldman said equality is not treating everyone the same, because not everyone is the same, but rather treating everyone with dignity and respect. This is a difficult concept for some employers to absorb, she said. “It’s time to hit the reset button on reasonable accommodations” for differing needs and backgrounds, Feldblum said. Other keys include greater diversity and more open communication between employers and workers. The next few years are critical for the EEOC, she concluded. The agency must take on the right cases and let employers know “it’s a whole new world.”
In a panel discussion after Feldblum’s talk, U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore of the Southern District of Texas and Beth Sufian, a Houston attorney and advocate for those with disabilities, agreed with the commissioner that no employer wants a lawsuit. Gilmore, a Law Center graduate, said that while she would like to think employers would resolve an issue because it is the moral and compassionate thing to do, the bottom line is that litigation costs a lot of money.
Sufian said employees need to educate themselves and their employers about their disabilities and their rights so they can act as their own advocate. And, employers need to make the effort to understand limitations and what accommodations can be made. “Some employers just don’t have a frame of reference,” Gilmore said.