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People who complain about discrimination have to wait an average of 426 days for the state to make a final determination, but Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said the turnaround will be faster with enforcement of the state’s new “ban-the-box” law.

The law, which went into effect Wednesday, prohibits employers from asking about criminal history on initial job applications. It was a victory for civil rights groups like the Second Chance Coalition, which pushed for the law because of the opportunities denied to job seekers trying to overcome a criminal past. Minnesota, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only states with a “ban-the-box” law for private employers.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights was assigned to oversee employer compliance with the new law. The department already investigates cases of employment discrimination, including age, gender and race.

Some attorneys who specialize in employment cases say the department may face challenges enforcing the law because of a shortage of personnel.

“Part of the problem is that the Department of Human Rights and the EEOC at the federal level are simply overloaded with work,” said Steven Cerny, a Minneapolis attorney who represents employers.

Enforcement will “come down to manpower,” he said.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30 of 2013, each investigator had an average of 74 cases to investigate, the highest caseload since at least 2001, according to the department’s biannual reports. Now, those investigators will also have to handle ban-the-box complaints.

Still, Lindsey said the department will quickly act on complaints and will educate employers. The agency added an investigator this week, although not specifically for ban-the-box complaints.

The process for investigating discrimination cases is lengthy and involves looking at personnel files and interviewing employees and employers. Lindsey said investigating a ban-the-box complaint may be as simple as looking at a printed application.

For example, when the department is investigating a discrimination claim, employers have to submit their employment applications. The department at that point would also check to make sure that the employer is following the ban-the-box law.

“I anticipate very quick turnaround as it relates to filing a ban-the-box complaint,” Lindsey said, saying that the added task of handling ban-the-box complaints will not “negatively impact our ability to investigate” discrimination cases.

The department hopes there will be few complaints after a full year of educating employers. The department has already met with various trade associations and human resource departments to explain the law.

The department’s collaboration with community partners will be key to the ban’s enforcement, said Emily Baxter, director of public policy and advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. Baxter said her organization and the Second Chance Coalition will continue to reach out to employers so that the “burden does not fall upon the department’s shoulders.”

For 2014, the department may impose only minimal fines. An employer will receive a written warning for the first violation.

In 2015, fines will be assessed based on the company’s size. For an employer with fewer than 10 employees, the penalty is up to $100 per violation, with a maximum fine of $100 per month. For employers with more than 20 employees, fines can be up to $500 per violation, with a $2,000 monthly cap.

Cerny, the Minneapolis attorney, said that he was pleased to see employers will have a year to adapt to the law and that fines are minimal, especially for small businesses.

“That’s the right decision to make. I think this will encourage employers to comply with the law,” Cerny said. “It gives employers an avenue to make changes without having a significant financial burden.”

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028