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DFEH Under Fire

The mission statement of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is to “protect Californians from employment, housing and public accommodation discrimination and hate violence.” As an added bonus apparently, Department Director Phyllis Cheng, will also throw in “avoiding whistleblower complaints.”

One of her goals at the Commission has been to stream line the complaint process for whistleblowers when reporting potential issues throughout the state. She has done so by implementing a computerized system known as HoudiniEsq, an online, English only program that required people wishing to file reports to build their own claims. Reporters with limited English ability, and those not versed with employment law, were often left in the dark, causing frustration and many aborted attempts.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Department claimed, and records corroborated, that the number of claims filed increased dramatically after the launch of the new system in 2012.

Phyllis Cheng was put in charge of the Department in 2008. She characterized the old reporting system as outdated and close to collapse. Though reviewers of the old system UCLA Law RAND) remarked that it was “incredibly complete,” Cheng said that it was difficult to maintain and afforded limited access.

So the Department coughed up nearly $738,000 and handed it over to a North Carolina based software company, Logic Bit Software LLC, for their HoudiniEsq system. Apparently the company’s enormous price tag didn’t include and sort of software tweaking, as investigators soon realized.

Ernie Herrera, a retired investigator who’d used the new system said productivity in the Department plummeted once it was installed.

“It was never made for us, you could tell,” he said. “It was made for lawyers. It asked us about minutes and billable hours, for example, things that we don’t do.”

Dealing with glitches and ongoing workflow tweaks aimed at accommodating Houdini slowed work, Herrera said. Meanwhile, the system’s online complaint-filing feature contributed to a record 24,000 housing and employment discrimination complaints by California residents in 2012-13, according to Fair Employment statistics. The previous high was 20,000.

Faced with a dramatic increase in the number of cases, and a staggering decrease in the ability of her investigators to properly handle those cases, Cheng was also bombarded with complaints from employees attempting to file cases.

It seems the system, often too complicated and filled with legal jargon, would generate complaints that didn’t make much sense and then forward those complaints directly to the businesses, agencies and employers against whom the complaints were being made, outing the whistleblowers and putting them in danger of losing their jobs (or worse) before even assigning an investigator.

Cracks began to appear, and then the Federal Government called…