ChamberlogoHarassment complaints in Alaska are on the rise, and the executive director of the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights said she expects that trend to continue, partly in light of the recent presidential elections.

“I do think there is somewhat, a lack of respect for opposing viewpoints that has come about because of this election,” she said. “This is a total non-partisan viewpoint here, because it’s from all sides. I think that may increase some of these harassment complaints as we move forward.”

Marti Buscaglia was in Ketchikan this week to provide information about the commission, its mission and how employers and others can avoid running afoul of state anti-discrimination regulations.

In a presentation to the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Buscaglia said her agency has primarily focused on enforcement, but she’s hoping to do more outreach.

“And making sure that we have our business community knowing exactly what constitutes discrimination, because I believe that we’re better off preventing it than having to remediate after the fact,” she said.

The commission has a specific task: Enforce state laws that prohibit discrimination against News Tileemployees, customers and potential renters who have been targeted because of race, religion, color, national origin, gender, disability, age, marital status, pregnancy or parenthood.

The State of Alaska currently does not include sexual orientation or gender identity among the protected groups, but Buscaglia said her agency is working on an amendment to add that to the state statute.

Buscaglia said most complaints her agency receives come from government employees. She believes that’s because government workers tend to have a greater understanding of the law.

Next highest is the food and beverage industry.

“I think part of that is because food and beverage is an industry where, oftentimes, you hire people for their looks,” she said. “You hire cocktail waitresses and you want them to be attractive and cute and young, and all those things are discriminatory. And sometimes you have bosses that think because they’re working with cute young things, it’s OK to ask them for special favors.”

Buscaglia said once the commission accepts a complaint, the investigation process begins. She notes that the investigation is completely confidential – limited to the complainant and the employer – until and unless evidence is found to show the complaint should move into the court system.

And employers can still avoid that step. Buscaglia said there is a settlement option that takes place after an investigation has found evidence; and a mediation option, which happens even before an investigation begins.

She said mediation is a great option for employers facing a discrimination complaint.

“Even if you don’t think it’s going to go anywhere because this happens before the investigation,” she said. “It’s an impartial process; it affords both parties an equal voice. We don’t tell you what you should offer the complainant and we don’t tell the complainant what they should accept. You two work it out together with a trained mediator.”

Buscaglia said it can be very expensive for an employer to settle a discrimination case. The best way for business owners to protect themselves is to know the law, and make sure employees know the law, because, if an employee discriminates against someone, the business is liable.

The commission’s website has more information about what constitutes discrimination in Alaska.