The director of California’s Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing, Phyllis Cheng, spoke to USC students Thursday morning in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center in a seminar titled “Current Trends in Gender Discrimination and Housing Discrimination.”
Cheng has been serving as the director of DFEH since 2008. She was appointed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was subsequently confirmed by the California state senate in a unanimous vote. Prior to her work at the department, she earned her Ph.D. from USC and a law degree from Southwestern Law School. As a lawyer, she specialized in civil rights law, working at both private firms and the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the California Dept. of Justice. In 2012, Cheng was named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year.
Cheng spoke to a group of students from the Marshall School of Business, the Price School of Public Policy and the Gould School of Law. She explained how the Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing defends California residents from discrimination against all kinds of factors, including age, race, gender, religion and disability. Recently, Cheng commissioned the UCLA-RAND Center for Law and Public Policy to look at the department’s data for the past decade.
“They found that disability claims grew by 76 percent. Race, national origin and sex discrimination decreased from 25 percent to 39 percent,” she said.
DFEH was established in 1959 and handles discrimination complaints related to employment and housing. The department works with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to enforce both national and state laws. It is the largest state civil rights agency in the country.
Since Cheng has been head of the department, it has seen both a decrease in its budget and an increase in the number of claims it handles every year.
“In terms of budget, we lost money. We used to have $24 million in our budget [in 2007], of which about $5 million is federal funding,” Cheng said. “Everything declined to about $20 million [in 2011].”
She explained that they have had to become more efficient by decreasing their overhead and streamlining the process they use to evaluate and respond to claims.
“I think it’s because we automated our system,” Cheng said. “It must be easier for people to go online and actually file a complaint.”
Cheng said the department saw a sharp increase in complaints in 2012, from about 7,000 to 13,000.
“This almost doubled the number of disability claims,” she said. “So, the system must be very user-friendly.”
One of the biggest ways DFEH has been able to handle the increase in their workload has been through the Educational Partnerships they’ve implemented with the law programs at University of California, Davis, UC Irvine and five other universities in California. DFEH employees teach clinical programs at the partner universities where students can earn course credit and assist with real-world cases.
“Over a 10-week period at Irvine and at Davis, 16 law students, under our supervision, worked 40 hours a week for 10 weeks,” Cheng said of a class-action law suit against Verizon.
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