Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights is open for business.
Four months after the City Council ended a two-year fight over whether to tackle discrimination complaints with its own local rules and enforcement, administrators hired Zan Tewksbury, an Albemarle High School graduate who has worked as a civil rights attorney in Portland for 16 years, to manage its new office. The city has also expanded its relationship with the local director of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and officials hope the presence of both in City Hall will foster more dialogue on a long-simmering issue.
Tewksbury, who moved back to the area this spring after 40 years on the West Coast to be closer to family, was here only two weeks when Council passed the ordinance establishing a volunteer Human Rights Commission and staff positions to support it.
“I thought, ‘Way to go, Charlottesville,’” she said. When she saw the job description, “it was like they took my resume and embedded it. There was no way I wasn’t going to apply for the job.”
Tewksbury has had a front-row seat for the changes that have swept through American employment law in recent decades. She graduated from the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College in Portland with a focus on civil rights in 1990, a year before the first major expansion of the Civil Rights Act since 1964 gave employees new powers in discrimination cases.
“Suddenly we could go to trial, we could get juries to hear the cases,” she said. “A lot of the case law developed in those years.”
She retired from the private practice she had watched grow for 20 years in 2011, ready for something else. She got certified as a mediator and did consulting work for small businesses. And then she landed in Charlottesville, in a job where both her legal expertise and her mediation skills will be in heavy demand.
Tewksbury, who will receive a salary of $72,000 out of an allocated budget of $197,000, is the public face of the new city office, and for the time being, she’s its only employee. She’ll be the one taking the calls, reading the e-mails, and listening in person as residents come forward. Even though the city is still in the process of creating its nine-member Human Rights Commission, her work establishing the office as a confidential clearinghouse for complaints about discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation begins now.
And that makes sense, she said, because she knows from experience that the vast majority of employment discrimination claims aren’t resolved in court, or even by tribunal-like bodies such as Charlottesville’s eventual commission.
“In my law practice, I’d say 85 to 90 percent of our cases were settled before trial, and the vast majority of those were through a mediation process,” she said. Litigation has its place, but it’s costly for all parties involved, and sometimes, it doesn’t get to the heart of what a complainant is really looking for.
“In court, all they care about are the facts,” she said. “Nobody cares about your story. In mediation, you get to tell your story.”
Darrell Graham stressed the same point. Graham is the director of the Richmond office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws. His office takes in discrimination complaints against companies employing 15 or more people in 78 counties and cities in the Commonwealth. Graham is now holding monthly “office hours” in Charlottesville in an effort to give residents a venue to voice complaints that Tewksbury’s office, which is limited to complaints of discrimination at companies with six to 14 employees, is not set up to handle.
Graham said that despite having a severely reduced staff, he’s made the area a priority. Of the approximately 1,300 employment complaints his office takes in on an annual basis, 10 percent come from Charlottesville and Albemarle.
“That’s almost 10 a month,” he said, and the numbers are higher than usual for 2013. “This year, we’re way ahead.”
Very few of those complaints result in penalties for employers. But that doesn’t mean the process isn’t working, he said—most are resolved through mediation or early settlements.
Tewksbury said her office and the EEOC’s presence will offer residents assurance that someone is listening. It might take some time for people to learn they exist as a resource, she said, “but we believe it’s going to be, ‘Build it, and they will come.’”