LGBT discrimination claims still not valid in Alaska despite federal ruling

The U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission ruled in late July that sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace is illegal because it is a form of sex discrimination, which is already prohibited.

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Some of the most common types of discrimination LGBT people face are in the workplace and in housing. Despite this, Alaska’s statewide and Anchorage anti-discrimination commissions don’t offer protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. The commissions are not legally required to do so, and some activists see that as an injustice.

“Just imagine if you couldn’t call the fire department because you were LGBT. I mean, that’s an analogy to make. If you are LGBT you should be able to call any state agency and get the same service,” says attorney Caitlin Shortell. She represented the same-sex couples that sued the state for the right to marry. “I mean this is an injustice that needs to be corrected.”

The Rainbow Flag is a symbol of LGBT pride. (Creative Commons photo by torbakhopper)
The Rainbow Flag is a symbol of LGBT pride. (Creative Commons photo by torbakhopper)

In December, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would treat gender identity as protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In early February, the U.S. EEOC Director of Field Programs sent a memo saying that complaints of discrimination based on gender identity should also be accepted under the Civil Rights Act. Federal and state employees already have these workplace protections.

And late last month, the federal commission ruled in a 4-2 vote that sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace was illegal, too.

But the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights and the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission refer LGBT discrimination complainants to a toll free number for the federal EEOC.

When I called the toll-free number, I was directed through nearly three minutes of call options. To speak with a federal EEOC employee, on one particular day the wait was approximately 60 minutes.

Both the state and Anchorage commissions have work-sharing agreements with the EEOC and receive a portion of their budget from the federal agency. However, the funding does not require commissions to enforce civil rights laws as the EEOC interprets them.

“There’s a basis and a duty to already be taking these complaints and the commission should be doing that, without even amending our state and municipal human rights law,” Shortell said.

In initial interview requests for this story, the commission’s directors — Paula Haley for the state and Pamela Basler for Anchorage — both refused to be recorded and would not answer questions directly. Neither director responded to subsequent interview requests.

Gov. Bill Walker says he “[doesn’t] like any form of discrimination, at all.”

But disliking discrimination doesn’t mean he’s willing to change up the state commission members and director, who serve at his pleasure.

“At this point we don’t intend to address this issue. That shouldn’t be a surprise,” Walker said.

Walker says his administration will not introduce legislation on this issue or any other social issue. He says he’s not reviewed the priorities of the state’s human rights commissioners or the commission’s executive director.

“I don’t want to be judgmental about what the Human Rights Commission is or isn’t doing, but I will say that we are working on that issue ourselves,” Walker said. “It’s come up in the past, the issue of them having some venue to report, record circumstances where they feel they have been discriminated against.”

In an earlier written statement the governor said he’d leave it to the commission to decide whether to accept LGBT discrimination complaints, or complaints from any other class.

In other words, the state commission is actively choosing to not provide coverage.

Only two of the seven board members on the state Human Rights Commission could be contacted. Although neither would agree to be recorded, one stated that discussion surrounding LGBT discrimination protections has only come up a few times in the past few years.

The federal EEOC canceled an interview and declined to reschedule. In a written statement, an agency spokeswoman says neither the state or Anchorage commissions are required to accept claims that they don’t have jurisdiction over. And jurisdiction is based on their own assessment of the law, independent of the EEOC’s positions.

In an interview with KYUK’s Elllie Coggins in May, state commission director Paula Haley didn’t include LGBT people in her organization’s duties.

“So we have a very broad area of coverage and we protect people from discrimination based on race, sex, disability, age, marital status, so there’s a lot of coverage. Pretty much everyone in Alaska is protected by our laws,” Haley said.

Later in the interview, Haley said most of the complaints the agency receives deal with employment discrimination—a type of discrimination transgender people are most at risk for, according to a 2012 Anchorage survey on LGBT issues.

In a previous story for KTOO, Paula Haley said she’s only seen a handful of cases over the years.

“Very few people contact us because they’re concerned about discrimination based on lesbian, gay, transgender, queer issues, because they know we don’t cover those. So they don’t reach out to us because we don’t have the ability to help them.”

In the Human Rights Campaign’s 100-point 2014 Municipal Equality Index,Anchorage scored the highest at 35, Juneau at 33 and Fairbanks the lowest at 24.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz says he, “everyone who lives in Anchorage has equal protection under the law.”

But later in the interview, Berkowitz said he was unsure of how the Anchorage commission currently handles these complaints and didn’t mention any specific plans to address the issue.