Virginia AG’s New Workplace of Civil Rights Will Scrutinize Enterprise Actions in 2021

On January 5, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced the creation of a new Civil Rights Office that will expand and replace the existing Human Rights Division within the Office of the Attorney General. The new department is a great example of the expanded scrutiny of workplace activity by state regulators across the country, especially given recent federal setbacks that all businesses need to be aware of.

The new office will protect the civil rights of Virginians through enhanced investigative and enforcement capabilities, particularly through specific investigations into LGBTQ and gender discrimination, housing discrimination, discrimination in employment and public housing, and protecting the rights of expectant and new mothers . According to a press release from Attorney General Herring, the new division will also work with the General Assembly to launch legislative civil rights initiatives, including better protection for disabled Virginians, anti-discrimination tools in healthcare, voter protection and educational justice.

As the new Civil Rights Office takes shape, Virginia businesses should prepare to form and defend their policies on civil rights, discrimination, and equal opportunities for employees, customers, tenants, and customers.

In addition, the expanded capacity of this office (from three to 13 employees) gives companies the ability to clarify the requirements required to maintain compliance with Virginia law through white papers and one-on-one meetings.

With this new delegation in the AG’s office, companies in Virginia – especially rapidly growing companies that lack the time or resources to address the many aspects of civil rights compliance – may want to take steps to ensure they don’t conflict with state regulators in the Commonwealth or nationwide. These include:

  1. To the extent that a company may not comply with material regulations and laws – or to the extent that compliance is of secondary importance – companies should work to ensure that all applicable regulations and laws, including those recently adopted by the General Assembly adopted, are adhered to. This is likely to require special initiative, including designated staff capable of interpreting and applying the law.
  2. Organizations should be ready to answer detailed questions about internal practices. The new Citizens’ Rights Office has the power to inquire about all aspects of business practices related to potential discrimination. Initial inquiries may not lead to penalties or even official investigations, but must be taken seriously. Organizations should be ready to provide detailed answers and related documentation when needed.
  3. To this end, companies should keep excellent records, including documentation of relevant policies and initiatives, a complaint documentation system, and recovery plans.
  4. Finally, companies should be proactive in their efforts. The office for civil rights serves to comply with the most important laws – those for the protection of human rights. Businesses should take this opportunity to go way beyond regulatory compliance and carefully review their anti-discrimination initiatives. There has never been a better time to proactively address civil rights and business discrimination, and Virginia companies would benefit greatly from using the creation of the Civil Rights Office to motivate introspection and innovation.

With the help of Delegate Charniele Herring, Attorney General Herring also plans to propose laws at the Virginia General Assembly to make the Civil Rights Office a permanent entity within the AG’s office. The Democratic majorities in both the Virginia House of Representatives and the Virginia Senate passed several bills in 2020 that expand the obligations of the AG, including a ban on income discrimination, changes to fair living laws in Virginia, protections for transgender students, and expanding the definition of hate crime. The General Assembly also directed the AG’s office to develop recommendations for the proactive enforcement of provisions of the Code of Virginia that require equal pay regardless of gender or race.

The announcement comes as Herring seeks a third term and prepares to face a major opponent later that year in Delegate Jay Jones, who also proposed a special civil rights bureau as part of his campaign. The election results, which can alter the balance of power among partisans in both the AG office and the Virginia House of Representatives, can also affect the Civil Rights Office.

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