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Individual protection act turns 50

By Srbui Karapetian

May 13, 2009 10:16 p.m.

In search for an apartment in Westwood with her mother in the 1960s, Phyllis W. Cheng, director of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, only remembers slammed doors and refusals.

“No one would sell an apartment back then to Chinese, to divorcees or to children,” she said.

Fifty years later, Cheng celebrated the state’s legislative achievements in a lecture delivered in the Faculty Center earlier this week, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which granted protection to individuals against both employment and housing discrimination.

The event was organized by the UCLA Committee on Disability as part of its community outreach to provide education and awareness about disability and the workforce, said Wendy Motch, co-chair of the committee.

It is because of the advents of the act as well as the endeavors of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing that managers at UCLA are able to attend to the needs and benefits of their employees and provide equal training, counseling and health services to their employees, Motch added.

The act has also ensured that students and employees with disabilities are better accommodated and provided access to resources, said Adrienne Malka, manager of Employee Disability Management Services.

As director of the department that investigates and prosecutes violations of civil rights in employment, housing, and public accommodations, Cheng heads the largest civil rights agency in the nation. Since its establishment in 1959, it has created a level playing field for all Californians so that employers no longer disregard applications that list disabilities, or refrain from offering leases to apartment seekers, or even discriminate against employees who take family leave.

In 2008 alone the department heard some 20,000 discrimination complaints, about 1 percent of which were prosecuted, Cheng said. Among these cases was when the sate of California ordered Terra Linda Farms to pay $111,000 for refusing to rehire a farm laborer who protested sexual discrimination, Cheng added.

While the act now represents California lawmakers’ steadfast efforts to prevent discrimination in all social sectors, this was not always the case.

Initially called the Fair Employment Practices Act, the act was enacted in 1959, Cheng said. Even so, it took the pioneering efforts of assembly members, march organizers, and lobbyists to ratify the bill, Cheng said.

The enactment of the Rumford Fair Housing Act followed suit in 1963. And in 1980, both acts were combined under the domain of the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Even though the act spearheaded civil rights legislation in the 1960s, its expansion during the past half-century to extending protection to individuals on the basis of physical and mental disability, marital status, sex, age or sexual orientation goes beyond its original conditions of race, color, religion and national origin, Cheng said.

What is more is that California’s law offers protection even beyond the federal government’s provisions, which do not accept sexual orientation and gender identity as legitimate grounds for civil rights protection, said professor of law Gary Blasi.

Although the act has opened doors for individuals to seek the legislative assistance they might not have otherwise been granted access to, there still remains a need to measure the accomplishments it has made in order to see its impact on Californians, Cheng said.

For this reason, the department has invited academic institutions such as UCLA and Loyola Marymount University to look in depth at the state employment system. Presently, the UCLA RAND Center for Law and Public Policy is conducting a project led by Professor Blasi which analyzes the department’s data bank ““ 250,000 worth of complaints, along with court records, and interviews with plaintiffs, employees and tenants.

The study aims to evaluate the effectiveness and the efficiency of the state law as it is enforced, Blasi said. It will be completed by the end of this year and will be available to the public for viewing, he added.

Most importantly, the study will mark the first effort to find out what the law has achieved and what its gaps are, and in this way, provide a blueprint for advancing the Fair Employment and Housing Act in the 50 years ahead, Cheng said.

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