RIGHTS BLOG: Updates from the Department of Human Rights

Ewald v. Royal Norwegian Embassy – Ensuring Equal Pay for Women in Minnesota

Posted on 1/14/15

Male and female employeesThe U.S. District Court for the State of Minnesota recently published its decision in Ewald v. Royal Norwegian Embassy, ruling that the Embassy had violated equal pay laws by paying the plaintiff, a female employee, less than a her male colleague. Ewald was awarded $170,594 in lost wages and an additional $100,000 for emotional distress. Beyond damages, the Norwegian government will be forced to pay legal fees likely to reach nearly $2 million. The Star Tribune and other media reported on the case and its settlement.

This ruling provides guidance for Minnesota employers on equal pay compliance under the Act. See, Ewald v. Royal Norwegian Embassy, No. 11-CV-2116 SRN/SER, 2014 WL 7409565 (D. Minn. Dec. 31, 2014). The Department of Human Rights has published technical guidance on the significance of the ruling and what employers need to know.

Since 1969, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (the Act) has afforded protection for women from being paid less than men absent a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. Nonetheless, according to The Status of Women & Girls in Minnesota report pay disparities continue to persist in Minnesota with women making an average of 80 cents to the dollar paid to men.

Accordingly, Minnesota took bold steps in 2014 in the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA) to require large state contractors to certify to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) that they pay women and men equally for substantially equivalent work. Since August 2014, MDHR has certified over 200 businesses.

While large state contractors are now required to obtain an equal pay certificate from MDHR, all employers in Minnesota are subject to liability under the Act for compensation systems that unlawfully discriminate against women. The Ewald decision highlights that these are real and ongoing issues, and that the courts are taking a new look at these cases. Employers and employees should pay attention to this significant decision.

Commissioner Lindsey reflects on Human Rights in 2014

Posted on 1/7/15

Commissioner Kevin LindseyIn 2014, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights undertook several new initiatives, accomplished several significant goals, and advanced the cause of civil rights in Minnesota.

‘Ban the Box’ law enacted

In January, the MDHR became responsible for enforcing the private “Ban-the-Box” law, which regulates when employers may obtain criminal background information from applicants. The Department investigated approximately 85 violations of the “Ban-the-Box” law in 2014. Emily Baxter, creator of We Are All Criminals, and Josh Esmay, Council on Crime and Justice, joined the Commissioner touring several cities over several months to discuss the public policy behind the “Ban-the-Box” law and Minnesota’s new criminal expungement law.

Women’s Economic Security Act signed

On Sunday May 11, Governor Dayton signed the Women’s Economic Security Act into law, expanding economic opportunity for women in Minnesota. “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,” Governor Dayton said, on the day of the signing.

Under WESA, the Minnesota Human Rights Act was amended to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of familial status. Minnesota became one of a handful of states in the country prohibiting discrimination against parents and those with responsibilities for taking care of minor children.

New Equal Pay Certificate law

Additionally, the Department became responsible for ensuring that no gender based discriminatory pay practices exist among state contractors with an Equal Pay Certificate under WESA on August 1. Minnesota is again leading the way for gender equality in the nation by ensuring that its contractors pay women comparably to men.

Meeting workforce participation goals

During construction season, Commissioner Kevin Lindsey put on his work boots to tour several large construction projects, which are monitored by the Department. Mortenson Construction and Thor Construction are exceeding the Department’s workforce participation goals for ethnic minorities and females on the Minnesota Stadium, which is the largest construction project in the history of the State of Minnesota. J.E. Dunn, contractor on the State Capitol Interior project, is achieving workforce participation for ethnic minorities at 34 percent and 21 percent for female workers.

Living the Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

In June, the Department premiered “Living the Legacy: The Civil Rights Act of 1964” on local cable and YouTube to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the historic legislation. The program features insightful interviews with Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, “The first lady of Minnesota Civil Rights” Dr. Josie Johnson, Macalester College Professor Emeritus of History Mahmoud El-Kati, former St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq, and Civil Rights Freedom Rider Claire O’Connor.

Same-sex marriage public accommodation discrimination settlement

About a year after same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota, the Department announced that it had settled a public accommodation discrimination complaint concerning two individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation just in time for their August 2014 wedding.

Minnesota Conversations show

In November, the Department went back into the “studio” again to produce three Minnesota Conversations shows – On Facing Race, Voting in Minnesota and Felony Voting. The interview with Leane Guerrero, a student at Minnesota State University, Moorhead was especially poignant explaining why restoring the right to vote to individuals who had been convicted of a felony is important.

Collaboration with Labor & Industry

Investigators from the Department of Labor & Industry joined the Department in November for a meeting to discuss how to collaboratively work together to ensure compliance with the pregnancy accommodation and nursing mother provisions under WESA. The Department looks forward to strengthening its relationship with DLI.

Diversity and Inclusion Summit

In December, the Department hosted its second Diversity and Inclusion Summit for senior staff of administrative agencies. Carleen Rhodes, President of the St. Paul Foundation, provided an overview of the Minnesota Philanthropy Partners’ Facing Race Initiative. Mike Christensen, Vice President at Minnesota Community Technical College, discussed an innovative program designed to meet a critical labor shortage issue for Hennepin County. Meghan Kelley Mohs, Director of Ramsey County Human Services, provided practical insight on how the County was able to make the Department more reflective of the community it serves. Finally, attendees had an opportunity to hear and learn more about Right Track, Step-Up and the Urban Scholars program, initiatives of the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul designed to provide internship opportunities.

MDHR’s Human Rights Symposium

The Department’s Annual Legal Symposium at the University of Minnesota was a tremendous success. Topics ranged from examining:

The Symposium was such a success that the Department has already begun planning on how to expand the event for next year.

MDHR increases efficiency, earns award

The Department of Human Rights was recognized by Governor Mark Dayton with a 2014 Governor’s Continuous Improvement Award for its sustained efficiency in investigating discrimination charges. The Department has greatly improved its efficiency in investigating discrimination complaints. In the last four years the Department has investigated approximately 2,300 discrimination complaints. In the preceding four year time period, the Department investigated 1,070 discrimination complaints.

Disabled Employee receives $65,000 for discriminatory practices

As the year came to close, the work of the Department was highlighted when Mr. Richard Hinrichs was able to tell his story to the media after Alexandria Light and Power agreed to pay him $65,000 to settle claims of disability discrimination. The case highlights the need, on the eve of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, to be vigilant to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities.

The work that was accomplished in 2014 has all of us within the Department looking forward to the opportunities in 2015.

On behalf of the Department, we wish that the future brings health, peace and a happy New Year to you.

Kevin Lindsey, Commissioner
Minnesota Department of Human Rights