Philadelphia Empowers Agency to Shut Down Discriminating Businesses
Businesses in the “City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” must now take this slogan seriously, ensuring no discrimination against patrons, or risk being shut down.
Public outcry over alleged discrimination by Philadelphia bars and restaurants toward LGBT people of color, including a videotaped incident in which a bar owner repeatedly used a racial slur, prompted the introduction of a bill to further penalize discriminating businesses. On May 17, Mayor Jim Kenney signed Bill 170344 into law, thereby amending the Fair Practice Ordinance of the Philadelphia Code, which prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, disability, marital status, familial status, genetic information, or domestic or sexual violence.
The law, which became effective immediately, empowers the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), the city agency that enforces antidiscrimination laws, to order a business to “cease its business operations in the City for a specified period of time” if the PCHR finds that the business has “engaged in severe or repeated violations” of the Fair Practices Ordinance “without effective efforts to remediate the violations.” While the PCHR has always had the power to order violators to cease and desist from unlawful practices, issue injunctive or other equitable relief, and award monetary damages, this new remedy could have an even greater impact on an offending business depending on how long it must cease operations. Unfortunately for businesses, the law fails to define what constitutes “severe or repeated” violations or “effective efforts to remediate the violations,” or to specify the length of the potential shutdown period.
The PCHR is expected to enact regulations to resolve these ambiguities, and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau has indicated that this enforcement mechanism would be used only under egregious circumstances and after a full hearing by the PCHR. In the meantime, employers are left to guess at their compliance obligations and the risks associated with noncompliance. What is clear, however, is that businesses must remain vigilant of their equal treatment of both patrons and employees to avoid potential disruption of their operations.