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Boosting the city's human rights laws

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, surrounded by City

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, surrounded by City Council members, discusses the deaths of Officer Wenjian Liu and Officer Rafael Ramos at a press conference at City Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Bryan Smith

NYC's human rights law is one of the strongest in the country, affording protections against discrimination and mistreatment.

But while the law is expansive, enforcement has been weak. That's why the City Council wants to revitalize the city's Commission on Human Rights with the resources needed to carry out its mission. The commission is short-staffed and underfunded, having seen its budget plummet from $10.4 million in the 1990s to $6.7 million today, according to numbers released by the mayor last month. We plan to boost the commission's budget by adding $5.1 million. The funds would help hire 25 human rights specialists and up to 40 attorneys.

Our proposals would ensure offenders can no longer hide by making clear that the commission should engage in more robust testing programs for private and public employers and landlords. Testing programs send out pairs of people that are similar, except in terms of the protected category -- for example, different race or gender -- to see whether employers or landlords treat them differently. Employment and housing discrimination are two of the most frequent types of violations.

NYC thrives on its diversity. Myriad languages, faiths, colors and creeds are woven into the city's fabric and constantly changing. So, too, must our human rights protections. The council will seek to revise the law so it embraces our evolving society and ensures NYC is safer and stronger for those who historically have been denied protections.

The council wants to expand protections against employment discrimination based on credit history; falling behind on medical bills or student loans should not be an obstacle to a job. And the council plans to protect those with criminal records seeking work. Unfortunately, many employers dismiss applicants early in the hiring process based on a criminal or arrest record, even for low-level offenses. An invigorated law would protect New Yorkers by "banning the box" -- ensuring that employers can only perform criminal background checks after making a conditional offer. This change would permit a fuller consideration of applicants.

NYC is a global leader on human rights; it is up to us to ensure that our laws live up to our highest values and embrace the diversity that makes our city exceptional.

Melissa Mark-Viverito is speaker of the New York City Council.


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