The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) is the state agency with the statutory responsibility to address unlawful discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, educational opportunities and public accommodations. I’ve served as a commissioner since 1999, and I was named interim chairperson in April 2016 by Gov. Tom Wolf. I consider it a great honor and a great responsibility.
The PHRC investigates thousands of complaints every year from people who feel they’ve been victims of discrimination. My task, and that of my fellow commissioners and the PHRC’s professional staff, is first to help educate, then if necessary, to investigate and adjudicate and, hopefully one day, eradicate discrimination. Based on what I’ve seen, we are unfortunately a long way away from living in a discrimination-free society. Discrimination is a very tough enemy to defeat.
I’ve seen very blatant and subtle acts of discrimination during my tenure on the commission. Imagine you are an African-American man who reported to work today at a manufacturing company and found a noose hanging near your work station. You complain and your employer does nothing. Or imagine that you want to join your friends at a popular restaurant, but because you use a wheelchair, the only way you can enter the restaurant is through the kitchen in the back of the building. Or maybe you are working at a job you love, and when you become pregnant, your doctor says you can continue to work, but when you tell your boss, your boss says he thinks you cannot perform your job duties while pregnant and fires you. Those aren’t hypothetical situations. They are real-life situations that resulted in complaints being filed with the PHRC. Every year, the PHRC receives thousands of claims of unlawful discrimination like these. There are currently 3,200 complaints pending, and PHRC has a statutory duty to investigate them all.
The PHRC has been protecting civil rights since 1955, when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) was enacted. Our mandate is to enforce the PHRA and the Pennsylvania Fair Education Opportunities Act. Those laws prohibit discrimination based on a number of “protected classes,” which include race, color, religion, ancestry, age (40 and above), sex, national origin, disability, known association with a person with a disability, use of guide or support animals or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals, possession of a diploma based on passing a general education development test, retaliation, familial status and refusal or willingness to participate in abortion procedures. The General Assembly is currently considering expanding the PHRC’s jurisdiction to add LGBTQ persons as a protected class. The PHRC supports such legislation, and I have personally advocated for that before the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee. It’s the right thing to do because no one in the commonwealth should be subjected to discrimination.
The PHRC’s mandate also includes providing education, training and outreach to Pennsylvanians about the law we administer and their civil rights. In addition, the PHRC monitors and attempts to resolve civil tensions in local communities across Pennsylvania. We do that by working with a statewide task force, in addition to our many local advisory councils and human-relations commissions throughout the commonwealth, who serve as our eyes and ears on activities causing tension in local communities, including the actions of hate groups.
The PHRC exists to protect you, your friends and your neighbors from discrimination. If you ever need our assistance, please go to our website at www.phrc.pa.gov. We have regional offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. When I began my tenure on the commission, we had close to 200 paid professional staff. At last count, we were down to 72. You can imagine how difficult it is to investigate thousands of complaints and do education and outreach with a statewide staff that small, but we manage to do our best.
In this year’s budget, the General Assembly gave the PHRC a 7.2-percent increase. We are grateful to all the legislators that helped us obtain the funding increase, which will be used by PHRC to hire additional investigators. As interim chairperson, I have tried my best to help make the General Assembly aware of PHRC’s need for a sustainable budget, which will allow us to most effectively do the work the law requires us to do.
In summary, I’d like you to understand that the PHRC is an important resource for all Pennsylvanians. If you need our help, we will be there for you. At budget time next year, I’d ask that you reach out to your legislators to let them know that protecting civil rights in Pennsylvania is as important to you as it is to me.
M. Joel Bolstein, PHRC interim chairperson, has been serving on the PHRC since 1999. He was appointed by Gov. Wolf to serve as interim chair of the PHRC on April 18, 2016. Bolstein resides in Bucks County.