RIGHTS BLOG: Updates from the Department of Human Rights


Bill provides workplace protections, equal pay protection for Minnesota women & expands the Human Rights Act minimum wage for over 350,000 Minnesotans

Posted on 5/16/2014

On Sunday, May 11, Governor Dayton signed the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) into law, following lengthy debates in both chambers of the Legislature, and described the law as “vitally important and long overdue.”

The WESA bill faced motions to reject the conference report in both chambers, which almost succeeded in the Senate with a narrow vote of 33-34 to reject sending the report back to the conference committee. The report was then adopted on a voice vote. The WESA bill’s final votes were 104-24 in the House and 43-24 in the Senate.

“It should not require a law to ensure that women are treated fairly in the workplace or that they are paid equally for their work,” said Governor Dayton on the day of the signing. Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey spoke at the ceremony saying that this bill is part of “making sure opportunities truly exist for everyone.”

WESA represents a significant step in the right direction for all Minnesotans, regardless of their gender.

As of May 12th, the law adds “familial status” to the list of protected classes in employment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (HRA). As a result, having a child under 18 is no longer a lawful reason to face discrimination in hiring, retention or termination. Discrimination in housing based on familial status has been against the law for decades, and WESA provides a valuable extension of the HRA’s protections. The legislature did not adopt language from the House bill that would have also added “family caregiver” status as a protected class.

Pregnant women also benefit under WESA.

  • Employers may no longer deny a pregnant employee’s request for reasonable accommodations such as keeping a water bottle, limits on heavy lifting and more frequent restroom and food breaks.
  • Employers cannot retaliate against an employee for making these requests.
  • The new pregnancy accommodation protections complement existing protections under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The WESA law also contains protections for employees discussing their wages, increases pregnancy leave from 6 to 12 weeks, and increases protections for nursing mothers.

Finally, the bill requires state contractors with over 40 employees and a state contract for over $500,000 to certify that they pay men and women equally for similar jobs. The Human Rights Department is responsible for enforcing this provision as part of the Department’s contract compliance work. This provision goes into effect August 1st, 2014.


Posted on 5/5/14

Minnesota lost a pioneer, a role model, and advocate for civil rights when Bertha Smith passed away April 18 at the age of 94.  Smith’s legacy as the Minneapolis School District’s first African American teacher in the late 1940s was a significant accomplishment.

Smith became an educator in a time long before the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that “separate but equal” public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional, or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. She broke down barriers and was tireless volunteer and a transcendent figure in the early years of the civil rights movement in Minneapolis.

Smith found her love for education early by helping her grandmother:

"Even though my grandmother could not read or write, she was the secretary of the (Elks) organization. She would tell me what she wanted to say and I would write it down and grandmother would memorize it word for word. She had a fantastic memory – what you would call a photographic memory, recalled bertha. I would write and pay the bill for the family too. Now one ever knew my grandmother didn’t know how to read and write. I taught her how to write her name and finally, I think grandmother must have been about 80 years old, I taught her how to read.”

In the 1930s, 83 percent of Black women were employed as servants or housekeepers. Despite the odds, Smith worked to become a teacher. “I think I set goals for myself just to try to better myself even if the odds were against me,” she said. 
Ms. Magnolia Latimer, head resident of the Phyllis Wheatley, called Stella Wood, the director of Miss Wood’s School for Kindergarten teacher training, to discuss Smith’s enrollment at the school. Latimer informed her of a scholarship to attend Ms. Wood’s School.

"I decided that if I do not continue my education I was always going to remain poor. I saw education as the key to a better life for myself, my family and a way to help my community. After I finished my training, I got married but I came back to Phyllis Wheatley and taught at the nursery school for eight years,” she said.

In 1939, Smith walked seven miles to the east bank of the University of Minnesota while working two part-time jobs to supplement her financial assistance to pay for tuition. She worked part-time at the Phyllis Wheatley nursery and afterschool activities at the center.

In 1943, Smith completed the two-year teacher training at Miss Wood’s School. Until 1957, Smith returned to the University of Minnesota taking day and evening classes. In 1957, she received her master’s degree in education. “I was lucky in having a very supportive husband who told me to go for it,” she said.

Ms. Wood worked on Smith’s behalf with the Minneapolis School Board for her teacher certification. Smith was granted certification to teach in 1957. Smith spent most of her working life as a public school teacher in North Minneapolis.
While the life of a school teacher may seem unremarkable today, during the times of segregation of the 1930s and 40s, it is an extraordinary accomplishment that is inspiring. In an interview she once said:

"Without the support at Phyllis Wheatley – of all the staff members and the friends I made to help me through the rough times – I don’t think I would have made it, plus I am just a little bit stubborn,” Smith said.

May her accomplishments live on in today’s educators.