The Tompkins County Workers’ Center has been helping residents file workplace discrimination complaints previously covered by the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights following changes that occured this year to the finances and functions of the OHR.
This extra caseload has cost the Workers’ Center roughly $20,000 since April, according to a “back-of-envelope” calculation by Robert Brown, the organization’s operations manager.
The OHR handles workplace discrimination cases and other civil rights issues while the Workers’ Rights Hotline at the Workers’ Center, started in 2003, provided support to community members in cases of wage and hour violations, Brown explained, calling it “a wonderful symbiosis.”
Brown said there was a change in the relationship between the OHR and the Workers’ Center last spring, when “the county administration, with support of the legislature, instructed the employees of the OHR to cease all support for members of the community for preparing complaints to regulatory agencies for alleged discrimination.”
“Having your rights violated is an extremely alienating, dehumanizing experience,” Brown said. “The very first thing that having some sort of support, whether they are an advocate like us or a support system like OHR was, is another person seeing someone for who they are and recognizing the pain, distress and dehumanization that they feel.”
Ken Clarke, the OHR’s interim director, told The Sun that while the amount of funding to the OHR has not been altered for the 2019 budget, the office discontinued the paralegal aide position.
Due to the lapse of a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding with the New York State Department of Human Rights which allowed the local Office of Human Rights to investigate claims, Clarke alleged, “there is no longer the need for the same type of work and research done by a paralegal to directly investigate claims of discrimination.”
The removal of the paralegal position, Clarke continued, “[does] not alter the office’s capacity to serve the citizens most in need of OHR’s services which [are] facilitating the filing of their complaints in our office, education, and outreach.”
Despite this assurance from the OHR and Clarke’s statement that he “[sits] with individuals as they fill out their forms,” Brown said that the Workers’ Center moved up from an already- growing average of 40 Workers’ Hotline cases per month to handling a number in the 50s.
The estimated $20,000 cost of these additional cases comes from a combination of the “direct costs of advocacy and support” and “the costs that the demand has diverted from other organizational opportunities such as fundraising,” Brown said.
Brown maintains that the Workers’ Center has been picking up this heavier caseload to supplement a changing way of processing workplace discrimination complaints at the OHR.
According to Brown’s account of the OHR, “instead of receiving human support for putting a complaint together, [complainants] are directed to the kiosk, a computer lab.”
“Bureaucracy is not most people’s native language,” Brown commented, highlighting the importance of an expert being present during every step of the complaint process, from helping complainants “turn [their experience] into a linear narrative that would help an investigator understand,” to making sure that only relevant information is filled out using the correct forms.
“Once it lands in the state’s hands, on a technicality something can get shredded just because [the wrong box was checked off],” Brown said.
“When those services stopped [at the OHR],” Brown continued, “our Workers’ Center was placed in the position of either accepting the argument that all a worker who faced discrimination needs is a computer lab, or saying that we can’t accept the premise that someone has to go in alone unless that’s what they want to do. And for our organization, there wasn’t a choice.”
Between three staff members and a “small-ish volunteer core of advocates,” the Workers’ Center has been attempting to manage the extra work. Brown said that they are seeking to expand their volunteer team, as the Center “struggle[s] to absorb the intense caseload increase from OHR.”
“Even without legal expertise, talking to somebody and being an empathetic human support rather than a blank screen or a pile of papers means a world of difference,” he explained.
Looking ahead, Brown said that the Workers’ Center “[is] actively talking to a lot of people involved in the situation and trying to understand and to influence the future of human rights enforcement in our community.”
“We will not tolerate discrimination here. That’s our position, it should be everybody’s position, and it should certainly be our government’s position,” Brown said.