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The state office responsible for investigating employment discrimination only finds reasonable cause to believe a violation occurred in one out of 250 allegations, a rate far lower than those reported by equivalent agencies in neighboring states.
That "contributes to public perceptions of division bias," according to an audit released Thursday by the legislative auditor general.
The state's Employment Discrimination Unit is a subdivision of the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division (UALD). Its role is to enforce state and federal employment law prohibiting workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or pregnancy.
An audit of the unit's performance over the past five years found that in addition to its low rate of finding cause, the unit had an "inadequate" investigative process, provides no formal training for investigators, has a sometimes-flawed mediation process and is equipped with a subpoena power that is useless to the unit.
Salt Lake City labor attorney Lincoln Hobbs said Thursday he "never found" the UALD unit to be a good option for his clients.
"When I have a discrimination claim, you can file in the [federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] if you choose to, and I always just recommend to my clients that they go directly to the EEOC," he said.
Labor Commissioner Jaceson Maughan accepted most of the auditors' recommendations, though he noted that out of 533 cases appealed, UALD never had a determination overturned by UALD's adjudication division or state courts during the audit period.
The findings of the audit were "not unexpected," Maughan told the Legislature's Audit Subcommittee on Thursday afternoon. He pointed to the March 2016 hiring of UALD Director Alison Adams-Perlac as proof the agency already saw problems with the status quo and said the audit will be used as a "blueprint going forward."
Discrimination investigations found cause in 0.4 percent of cases in fiscal year 2015 and averaged 0.7 percent over five years, according to the audit.
That, compared to the EEOC's rate of 3.5 percent and a nationwide average at equivalent state organizations of 1.5 percent. Rates in neighboring states are even higher. Colorado is at 3 percent, Arizona 5 to 6 percent, Wyoming 6 percent and New Mexico 7 to 8 percent.
Measuring by "potential merit outcomes" in which charging parties get something for their effort, including a negotiated settlement or withdrawal with benefits Utah fares a little better.
Utah's rate of those outcomes is higher than the EEOC's, at 23.1 percent to 18.1 percent, and just slightly below the average state equivalent of 24 percent.
Much of that is due to Utah's rate of negotiated settlements. At 17.4 percent, Utah's cases are resolved by settlement nearly twice as much as those before the EEOC (8.9 percent) or other state equivalents (8.1 percent).
Hobbs said Utah's high mediation rate may be due to its policy of promptly bringing in both complainant and respondent to try to broker a resolution.
"The EEOC, by contrast, only mediates a portion of the cases and will only do so if both of the parties" agree to the mediation, he said. "With the UALD, it's the first step in the process."
The audit dinged the unit for its mediation practices, too. UALD doesn't require all mediators to receive court-qualified mediation training, auditors found.
In addition to a lack of formal training, investigators have inadequate performance measures and little opportunity for upward mobility, auditors found.
Complicating matters, UALD has had three directors since 2011, and the average turnover among investigators has been 46 percent.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, asked audit supervisor Deanna Herring on Thursday if she could identify a potential cause of the high turnover.
"I think there's a myriad of problems and concerns that employees have," Herring said, including, "a lack of professionalism because 'I haven't been trained and no one's going to take me seriously.'"
Auditors also found that UALD doesn't keep essential records and found it "difficult to follow the evidence justifying a resulting determination and order, and there is little oversight to ensure investigation outcomes" in 10 sampled cases they reviewed.
Utah's Code, auditors noted, allows investigators to compel witnesses to attend hearings, which it doesn't hold. A more sensible subpoena power would give them authority to obtain evidence for an investigation.