Mediation now available to resolve employment discrimination complaints

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Resolving an employment discrimination complaint can drag on for years and cost thousands of dollars. Now, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has come up with an option in which both sides could reach a resolution in about 10 days.

With a $66,000 grant from the governor's Innovation Office, the commission has created a two-year pilot mediation program to allow employees to sit down with their employers and a neutral mediator. The option is available at no cost to the employee, who is not required to hire an attorney.

"With mediation, everyone gets relief faster," commission Chairman Gerry Robinson said in a release. "People who believe they have been wronged, as well as employers facing complaints, will get conflicts resolved faster, avoiding lengthy investigations, costly hearings and potential court filings."

Last year, the commission received about 3,500 employment discrimination complaints. Though varied in nature, the complaints are usually brought by people who believe they have been treated unfairly in the workplace because of sex, race, age or other characteristics.

Starting June 17, complainants were offered the new option. If the mediation does not come to a resolution that satisfies both sides within 10 days, the commission launches a formal investigation -- and that's where the process becomes time-consuming.

Kathy Morrison, the commission's chief counsel, said mediation could be an adequate option for most cases. "I, personally, am not sure that I see a lot of cons to mediation," she said. "It is confidential, voluntary, and you can stop at any time."

Marilynn Spencer, a California-based employment and labor attorney, said the neutral mediators at organizations such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not necessarily keep the interests of complainants in mind.

Considering that employers will normally bring attorneys to mediation, Ms. Spencer said, employees should seek similar representation to ensure their rights and interests are respected.

Still, Judith Meyer, a Haverford attorney, said mediation is a strong tool in discrimination suits. "It brings together the employee and employer, which can really be very illuminating."

But Ms. Meyer cautioned that many employees do not have a firm grasp of the grounds on which they could successfully bring their employers to court, and she recommended people consult extensively with attorneys prior to filing a complaint.

She has encountered employees who wanted to file complaints against rude or verbally abusive employers, but such cases often aer weak because that kind of behavior does not always involve discrimination against a specific racial, ethnic or other group. Attorneys, she said, usually will only agree to represent potential clients whose cases are undoubtedly legitimate.

Officials at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission have reason to believe mediation will prove effective. The program is modeled after mediation procedures in place at similar organizations, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

John Schmelzer, an acting director at the EEOC, said more than 70 percent of the organization's mediations come to a resolution.

"We've had this program for 20-plus years, and it's been a very effective program in terms of resolving disputes between workers and employers, and also an effective means of moving a very heavy charge workload so charges don't just sit forever waiting resolution," Mr. Schmelzer said.

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Daniel Sisgoreo: dsisgoreo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @DanielSisgoreo.


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