The mission of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities is to eliminate discrimination and to establish equal opportunity and justice for all persons within the state. Clearly, these are broad and ambitious objectives. While significant progress towards these objectives has been made, fairness and justice for all people remains elusive. The Commission, as it has for the past sixty years, continues to break new ground in pursuit of our goals.
The Commission began its quest in 1943 as the Inter-racial Commission. Its humble enabling statute directed what was then the first public agency of its kind to "investigate the possibilities of affording equal opportunity of profitable employment to all persons." The whole field of inter-group relations was virtually unexplored at the time. The problems were undefined and the solutions were unknown. Yet the mandate had at its core the intention to create an agency that State Senator William Mortensen, who introduced the bill to the General Assembly, hoped would give the "blessings of democracy" to all citizens of the state.
Four years later, in 1947, the state enacted the Fair Employment Practices Act, which empowered the fledgling Commission to receive, initiate, and investigate employment discrimination complaints and to conduct hearings on complaints that were not resolved by conciliation. However, it took another twelve years before these hearing tribunals were given the power to remedy discrimination. Employers guilty of discrimination could now be directed to hire, reinstate, award back-pay to, or take other affirmative steps to compensate victims of discrimination.
During the time leading up to this expansion of powers, much of the agency’s resources were dedicated to research, education, outreach and inter-group relations efforts. The agency’s Research Division was respected nationally and laid the foundation for the future expansion of civil rights laws within the state. That expansion included a law which, for the first time, addressed the issue of housing discrimination. Discrimination in public housing was prohibited in 1949. Housing law slowly evolved, until by 1963, it covered all housing, except owner occupied two family homes.
In the sixties, the battle cry of the national civil rights movement resounded in Connecticut. Governor John Dempsey called a Governor’s Conference on Human Rights and Opportunities in 1967 to mobilize the public and private sectors to translate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Dream" into reality.
Given a new name to more clearly convey its legislative mandate, the "Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities" was authorized by the General Assembly to establish regional offices and to employ its own legal counsel to confront all forms of discrimination. Numerous laws were added, extending the scope of protections to increased categories of people.
The number of citizens coming to the Commission for redress skyrocketed. Education and inter-group relations activities had to be curtailed, as staff resources were applied to the task of investigating individual claims of discrimination. The result was an unprecedented influx of individual complaints. As more and more resources were necessarily diverted to investigating the complaints, the Commission considered ways to combine that effort with a systemic approach to combat discrimination. In response to urgings from the Commission and others, the General Assembly began, in 1965, to enact state affirmative action and contract compliance provisions. In 1975 the Commission was given the responsibility to administer detailed and specific affirmative action mandates that sought to remedy the effects of a history of past discrimination in state government. The development of contract compliance laws followed and was expanded, seeking to use the purchasing power of the state to assist the development and participation of small, minority owned and women owned companies. The Commission was given enforcement responsibility in this area as well.
When resources did not keep up with our expanding mandates, the inevitable consequences began to surface in the 1980’s. It began to take longer and longer to resolve citizen’s complaints. In 1989 the Legislature responded by enacting strict time frames for the completion of case investigations. As the 1990’s began, the agency took decisive steps to streamline its case processing function. A Merit Assessment Review (MAR) process was designed and implemented. The MAR process allowed the Commission to concentrate its resources on those cases which appear to have the most merit, moving them to full investigations sooner, and ultimately, to resolve cases more quickly. In 1996, CHRO instituted agency wide mediation efforts, resulting in a significant increase in the number of settlements reached early in the investigatory process.
The Commission has continued to develop its contract compliance strategies, trying to help small, minority owned and women owned companies take advantage of the state’s contract compliance laws and make significant gains in the state government contract market. Insuring that the state complies with all affirmative action principles remains a priority as well.
The new millennium began with severe budgetary constraints, resulting in a loss of staff, and culminating in layoffs and an early retirement offering in 2003. Following these events, the agency's staff was down almost 40% from its high point in the late '90's. Since then, the Commission has been undergoing a rebuilding process. While we have been able to hire some new staff, we are still down some 23%. Despite this impediment, as we approach our 75th anniversary, the Commission continues the vigorous pursuit of its mandates, and is exploring new paths towards that goal.