The State Worker

Big changes at California discrimination-watchdog department

After months of withering criticism, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has ended a policy blamed for chilling state-employee discrimination claims.

Department Director Phyllis Cheng on Thursday made the announcement in a conference call with department consultants who are on the front lines of the agency’s mission to investigate housing, workplace and disability discrimination allegations.

During that same call, spokeswoman Fahizah Alim confirmed, Cheng told staff that the department would, on Sept. 1, begin interviewing claimants at the start of the filing process. As first reported by The Sacramento Bee, Fair Employment switched to an online English-only computer system two years ago that required claimants – who may not speak English or have any knowledge of discrimination law – to build the case for their claims.

The HoudiniEsq program sometimes produced nonsensical allegations that the automated system would simply push on to employers or property managers accused of discrimination.

“We’re tweaking the system. It’s still going to be paperless,” Alim said. “But now (claimants) will have a consultant to help them.”

Some office duties that consultants had complained cut into their time to investigate cases will be shifted to office technicians, Cheng said in the telephone call.

Cheng, who has led Fair Employment since 2008, has been under pressure for several years. As budgets shrank and staff dwindled, she drew ire from employees for closing offices around the state and launching the Houdini system in 2012 as a way to automate some functions that were time-intensive, including fielding initial claims and deciding which allegations required action.

Not long after Houdini launched, however, federal Housing and Urban Development authorities criticized the department for closing far fewer cases than before Houdini went live.

Last year, a state Senate report revealed that the department since 2008 has sought approval from the Governor’s Office before acting on discrimination claims against public agencies.

The department ended that policy in July, Cheng told consultants on the conference call.

Fair Employment may yet face more embarrassing revelations. A recent state probe found that supervisors under Cheng illegally promoted an unqualified employee into management and that one supervisor gave conflicting testimony during the investigation.

The revelations were part of the State Personnel Board’s ongoing investigation into Fair Employment’s hiring and promotional practices.