Big case backlog at Massachusetts agency eyed for role protecting transgender rights
BOSTON >> The state agency that lawmakers plan to assign a greater role in adjudicating transgender accommodations claims has long labored under the weight of a heavy backlog of discrimination complaints and experienced mixed results trying to obtain additional funding from the Legislature.
Each Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) investigator handles 235 cases and investigations can take on average 22 months to complete, according MCAD Chairwoman Jamie Williamson.
The numbers far exceed neighboring states with similar agencies and highlight a timeframe that Rep. Russell Holmes called "ridiculous."
"It really is unacceptable that we have people wait that long since their case to get resolved. So when you layer on the transgender question, that's just more folks who will be in the long line of waiting. I really hope that the Senate gets it to the level of funding that they think that's appropriate so they can get rid of the backlog," said Holmes.
Alleged victims of various types of discrimination file about 3,000 complaints each year with MCAD, which has a backlog of about 2,000 cases.
Transgender complaints would be added to that workload, and both the House and Senate ( H 4253/ S 735) versions of the transgender rights bills add responsibilities for the agency, instructing the MCAD to "adopt, promulgate, amend and rescind rules and regulations or formulate policies and make recommendations."
The agency has made regular requests to the Legislature for more funding over the years. During the annual House budget debate in late April, the House agreed to a Holmes amendment boosting funding for the agency by $150,000. Holmes said he was aiming to helping the agency reduce its backlog and resolve cases in a more timely manner — in their budget hearing presentation MCAD officials asked for a $617,000 increase over their state appropriation of $2.9 million.
The Senate plans on Thursday to pass legislation designed to prevent discrimination against transgender individuals in public accommodations and to allow transgender individuals to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity.
Next week, Senate leaders are set to unveil their fiscal 2017 spending bill, which will recommend an appropriation for MCAD.
There are 11 amendments pending to the Senate bill, including one filed by Minority Leader Sen. Bruce Tarr that would direct the MCAD to provide an annual report on cases related to transgender public accommodations discrimination.
Referring to the House bill, Holmes said although the plan would give the MCAD much more guidance in protecting transgender individuals, he has "great concern" that it could further burden the agency.
"I think the commissioner made it clear in Ways and Means and with her advocacy and her team's advocacy that they need more resources to do this an appropriate way," Holmes told the News Service.
In an interview with the News Service, Williamson said her agency is "familiar" with the work ahead, and will need to make some adjustments to how it handles complaints.
Since 2014, MCAD has handled seven cases involving claims of transgender discrimination in the area of public accommodations. All but one of those cases remains open.
Williamson said she does not expect a large "uptick" in cases, and said the number of cases will depend on compliance with the law, should it pass. In the meantime, MCAD has posted a fact sheet on their website detailing the protections transgender people have under the current law.
Williamson said the MCAD will continue to be able to respond to new claims filed, but current circumstances might mean resolution will take time.
"We're still working on 2012 and it's 2016, so I wouldn't expect anyone to get any immediate response from any case," Williamson said. "You know if it comes in today it's not going out anywhere anytime soon just because of the amount of backlog that exists at the MCAD. So until that's resolved, we can only do what we do and that's what we've been doing."
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