By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 5

In this column:

  • Must a Landlord Accommodate a Tenant's Disabled Guest?
  • Are "Waitress Wanted" Ads Illegal?
  • Speaking Up for Gays Gets an Employee the "Cold Shoulder" From His Boss

Must a Landlord Accommodate a Tenant's Disabled Guest?

I live on the third floor of a small apartment building in south Minneapolis. There's an elevator, but it hasn't worked for the past four months, and before that, it was out of order every other week. This isn't a big problem for me, but I've got a buddy who happens to be in a wheelchair, and we get together with some friends about every week at my place. That means I'm carrying him -- in the wheel chair -- up three flights of stairs, one step at a time. Or else two of us will just pick up the wheelchair, one on each side, and carry him that way. This is not only a pain, but it's probably humiliating for my friend to be lugged around this way.

I've called the landlord several times to complain, and I've told him about my buddy and his disability. The landlord says he's not sure the elevator can be fixed. Doesn't he have an obligation to repair it? And if I keep complaining and he evicts me, can he do that?

The Commissioner says:

Because your friend is not a tenant, your landlord probably can't be compelled to fix the elevator as a reasonable accommodation required by the Human Rights Act. Minnesota courts have held that apartment buildings are not places of "public accommodation" for visitors, so the provisions of the Act that protect the rights of people with disabilities in restaurants, movie theatres, and retail stores don't apply to a tenant's guests.

That doesn't mean you should give up. There may be other laws, or provisions in your lease, that require your landlord to keep your apartment building in good repair. You may want to talk to the Tenants Union in your city, or to a city housing inspector, for more information about that issue.

If your landlord evicts you or otherwise retaliates against you because you've complained about the elevator, that's a different story. The Human Rights Act prohibits retaliation against a person for exercising any right under the Act, even if it turns out that there was nothing illegal about the matter complained of. You are engaging in "protected conduct" when you complain about a practice you believe to be discriminatory, and hanging out with a buddy who has a disability is also protected conduct recognized by the Act. So if your landlord engages in reprisal because of your opposition to discrimination, or because you are associating with a person who has a disability, call us immediately.

Are "Waitress Wanted" Ads Illegal?

I saw an ad in my hometown paper for a "waitress wanted." Aren't ads that specify one sex or the other supposed to be illegal? I was curious, so I called up and asked the manager if they would hire a waiter. He said yes, if the person had experience, but he didn't sound too thrilled about it. It seems to me that the fact that he advertised for a "waitress" shows he's obviously looking to hire a woman. Can you fine this restaurant for discrimination? What about the newspaper that took the ad -- aren't they breaking the law, too?

The Commissioner says:

Although using the term "waitress," rather than "server" (or waiter/waitress), suggests the manager may be intending to hire only a woman, that isn't enough, by itself, to make a solid case of sex discrimination. The employer may have been using the term "waitress" out of habit, with no intent or desire to discriminate. If a male with server experience applied and was told he wouldn't be hired because of his sex, or was given short shrift compared to similarly qualified female applicants, there would be the basis for a charge.

It is certainly preferable to use gender-neutral terms in job ads, and the newspaper probably should have advised the manager of this when the ad was placed. While accepting an ad for a "waitress" doesn't have the same implications as "server wanted -- female only" would, it is a poor business practice. It can also lead to problems the employer wouldn't have if the ads and the hiring took only legitimate job qualifications into account.

Speaking Up for Gays Gets an Employee the "Cold Shoulder" From His Boss

I work in a print shop, and six months ago everything was going great -- my supervisor, Dan, even recommended me for employee of the month. Then, like night and day, his attitude changed. He's been constantly riding me, and now he's saying he might have to cut back my hours. I've got more seniority than most people in the shop, and everyone knows that I'm one of the best press operators. I really couldn't figure it out. Then I thought back to a conversation we'd had one day at work. Dan was talking about gays, and said he wouldn't want a gay person teaching his kids at school. A couple of guys agreed with him. I didn't say anything. Then he looked at me, and I said, well, I suppose gays ought to have a right to a job like everyone else. I didn't think much more about it, but ever since that conversation, Dan won't even talk to me if he can avoid it. I was talking about it with another guy on my shift last week, who said, "It's obvious. Dan thinks you're queer." I'm not gay -- I just think they should have jobs if they want. Now my job's on the line. What can I do?

The Commissioner says:

So far you haven't had your hours reduced, and just getting the "cold shoulder" from the boss probably isn't enough to bring a discrimination charge. To file a charge, you have to be treated differently to the extent that it amounts to an "adverse job action." If you were laid off, denied a promotion, or subject to overt harassment or unfair discipline, that would amount to an adverse job action.

It could be that your coworker is right, and Dan assumes you are gay because of what you said. Or maybe he doesn't think you are gay, but just doesn't like the fact that you opposed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law protects you from discrimination based on the employer's perception of your sexual orientation, and from adverse treatment for opposing discrimination. But while Dan's comments have made you uneasy, your terms of employment haven't actually been changed.

If more than Dan's attitude changes, and you do have your hours cut back or experience another adverse job action, we would take a charge and investigate to determine the reason. In the meantime, you need to keep your job performance and work habits up to par, so your boss doesn't have a legitimate-appearing excuse to mask what could be a discriminatory motive.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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