Equal Rights Commission sees fewer complaints in 2020, 2021

Members of the Anchorage Assembly meet for a work session with the Anchorage Equal Rights...
Members of the Anchorage Assembly meet for a work session with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission on Sept. 16, 2022.(Anchorage Assembly)
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 4:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission presented the findings of their annual report to members of the Anchorage Assembly during a work session on Friday.

The department is tasked with resolving complaints from the public in all areas where a citizen’s equal rights are protected: housing, employment, financing, education, public accommodations, and in the practices of the Municipality of Anchorage. They do not address internal municipal employee issues or claims filed against the Anchorage Police Department.

Previous years saw the Equal Rights Commission investigate up to 125 complaints a year in the area of employment discrimination alone, but that number is trending downward.

Only 68 claims of discrimination on the job were made in 2020, and in 2021 there were just 57 claims.

A variety of reasons could factor in, including a transition to working from home for most employees during the pandemic. New commission Director Keoki Kim says another factor is the current employment landscape.

“If you have an opportunity to get another job, you’re not necessarily going to file a complaint and go through this process as opposed to just getting a better job where you don’t suffer discrimination,” Kim said.

A human rights attorney who formerly served on the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, Kim is also concerned that a lack of public awareness about what the Equal Rights Commission does may be affecting the reported claims.

“It brings up another point, that I would really like to do a lot of outreach to the business community and be proactive about just educating people about what is discrimination, what is allowable or what is not allowable, and trying to prevent it from even reaching that level,” he said.

Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar wondered if a change in the value of an employee may also be a contributing factor.

“I’m a millennial, and this is the first time in my generation’s existence where we have actual market power,” Dunbar said.

Millennials are now the largest age group in the workforce and are projected to grow in numbers through 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Now if an employer is mistreating you, that’s their loss. There’s almost certainly going to be a job that is as good or better for you out there. It’s the first time in my generation’s history we have actual power in the marketplace, and I tell you a lot of folks are really upset about it,” Dunbar said.

Kim joined the commission just last month and already has big plans to increase awareness of the commission and its work. He says outreach is critical.

“We don’t just want to be the hammer that comes down as enforcement, but we also want to be the educators that allow people to understand what the law is so they can avoid it, because I think most businesses want to be successful, they don’t want to lose employees and they don’t want to be part of any enforcement process. They’re motivated, and perhaps they just need our help,” Kim said.

“Because I find that a lot of people, they mean well, but not everybody necessarily understands every nuance of the law as it’s passed.”

To assist in educating the public, the commission has created materials in some of Anchorage’s most-spoken languages to assist the public in the process of defending their rights. Literature is available in Korean, Russian, Tagalog, Hmong, Spanish and English.

The commission, which consists of nine members, has only a small support staff of seven people to address complaints, but it is integral in preventing discrimination issues reached the litigation stage and keeping costs down overall.

Former interim director of the commission Marie Husa is proud of the work that her team has been doing. She noted that the small team operates on a paltry .14% of the total municipal budget — and still manages to make a large community impact.

“For the work we do and for the impact in the community, who we can help in the community, I thought that was striking and noteworthy,” Husa said.