ABOVE PHOTOS: Chad Dion Lassiter (Photo/PHRC) and Guerline L. Laurore, Esq. (Photo/ llaurorelaw.com)
Through its mediation program, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission helps those who have been victims of discrimination find relief.
By Denise Clay-Murray
To understand just how important the work that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s Mediation Division has been to the lives of Commonwealth residents experiencing discrimination, here is one example. A person came to the PHRC with a workplace complaint. The complainant had been with the company for 20 years and had been subjected to racial slurs, sexual harassment and physical abuse at the hands of a female supervisor.
Upper management was told about the problem, but when nothing was done, the employee had to go out on workman’s compensation due to the stress. Another employee opted to get a Temporary Restraining Order due to the harassment.
The case went to the mediation team, and a worker who was just trying to do her job found justice, winning a $322,500 settlement and her worker’s compensation. The supervisor was sent to counseling and ultimately retired from the job. It could have been worse for the company because they didn’t deny the supervisor’s behavior.
Led by Director of Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs, Guerline L. Laurore, Esq., the job of the three-person division — mediators Desiree Chang and Christopher Young round out the team — is to help find solutions to complex problems, said Chad Dion Lassiter, PHRC’s executive director.
When he became the executive director of the PHRC three years ago, Lassiter inherited a mediation division that was decidedly shorthanded, he said. He also inherited a backlog of discrimination cases connected to people who had been waiting as long as three years for justice.
Finding a way to deal with that backlog within the budget of a state agency whose funding is often determined by who sits in the governor’s mansion, required some creativity. So, he decided to apply that creativity to restorative justice, Lassiter said.
“We had to take a different type of approach,” he said. “Our investigative processes were so bogged down, so we had to be more efficient and reduce the backlog. To address all forms of unlawful discrimination, we had to ask, ‘How can we mediate the conflict?’ So, we revamped our mediation division and I’m so excited that we’ve added this component.” While the PHRC deals with many forms of discrimination, right now the mediation division attempts to settle discrimination disputes related to employment and public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels. They hope to expand to housing discrimination in the future, Desiree Chang, one of the mediators, said.
Chang came to PHRC in December 2019, and she and Christopher Young, her fellow mediator, started out by working on cases in the Harrisburg region because it was the closest. But once they established a system that streamlined the process, a process that includes telephonic mediation due to the pandemic, they were able to start taking cases in the PHRC’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh offices as well, she said.
“We had to get used to the process and make it more seamless and cohesive for everyone involved,” she said. “While the pandemic made us have to regroup, we managed to achieve our goals with this barrier in place.”
Before becoming a mediator, Young worked as an investigator for the PHRC. From that position, he saw the backlog up close and saw people in need of help have to wait for as long as two years to get it. When he saw a chance to be able to help people through mediation, he decided to take it.
“I was a kickboxer and a bouncer for 16 years, so I know that no one wants conflict,” he said. “I love this because the people we’re trying to help have a say in how things go,” he said.
In January, the Mediation team won $1.36 million in anti-discrimination awards for affected Pennsylvanians, including the $322,500 settlement mentioned at the top of this story. PHRC investigators, attorneys and even the parties themselves can request or recommend that a case go to mediation. But while the division has had its successes, it doesn’t always work, Lassiter said.
“We don’t force anyone to do anything,” he said.
“Mediation is voluntary, but we’ve had mediations that are not successful,” Chang said. “While the goal is to reach a resolution, if we get to a point in the mediation where an agreement can’t be reached, the case does return to the regional office and is investigated. The complainant doesn’t lose the opportunity to get the justice that they’re seeking.”
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