Michelle Pavlov was seven months pregnant when she was fired. The owners of Happy Flooring in Yarmouth said they were closing their showroom on Cape Cod and could not afford to keep it on as manager.
But when Pavlov started looking for a new job online, she came across an ad on Craigslist for what looked like her old job — with one key difference: The post said applicants should be “preferably male.”
Pavlov immediately filed a gender bias complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Then she waited. And waited.
It was seven years ago.
She finally got a ruling in her favor this spring, but the company told her it planned to appeal, meaning the case could drag on for several more years.
Meanwhile, Pavlov’s son – who wasn’t even born when she was fired – is now in first grade.
“He’s seven years old,” she said. “He shouldn’t have to know about commission lawyers and discrimination.”
More and more people like Pavlov have been waiting for years for MCAD to make decisions. The agency has long had a reputation for being late, but the pandemic has compounded the delays as the agency has lost employees who have not been replaced.
The backlog of old cases under investigation for more than 18 months has increased more than fivefold since 2019, according to the agency’s own data, reaching 1,400 cases today. And many cases take much, much longer.
MCAD took 17 years before last year to dismiss a retaliation complaint filed by a fired power grid worker. A sex discrimination case against the Massachusetts Port Authority lasted 15 years before being dropped in 2021. And records show a dozen ongoing cases have been pending for more than a decade.
“I feel like the system is broken,” said Mela Bush-Miles, a community organizer based in Roxbury. She said the long wait times suggest tackling discrimination is not a priority in Massachusetts.
Some advocates also worry that the delays will deter many victims from coming forward, missing the chance to catch violations and hold institutions accountable.
“People are just going to give up,” said Tom Murphy, supervising attorney at Boston’s Disability Law Center. And Murphy feared it would encourage those in power to simply ignore rules designed to end discrimination.
A growing backlog
MCAD spokesman H Harrison acknowledged that some cases took years to resolve. But he insists the commission was going through the list of pending complaints before the pandemic.
“We were on hand to clear the backlog,” he said.
But after COVID began to spread across the United States, Harrison said the agency suffered a number of setbacks. He had to reduce the number of interns, who often help with investigations. Many key employees have resigned, including MCAD’s general counsel and the three hearing officers. And the agency had to temporarily impose a hiring freeze at the start of the pandemic after losing about $380,000 in federal funding.
This deficit was later replaced by the state, but staffing problems remain. MCAD says a quarter of its 33 survey slots have yet to be filled.
Those who stay on board are often overwhelmed. MCAD investigators – who conduct interviews and determine if there is enough evidence to show there was likely a breach – are now assigned an average of 150-200 cases each, compared to just 30 cases per room in the office. Connecticut Anti-Discrimination.
“It’s incredibly stressful,” said one person who recently left MCAD’s investigations unit and asked not to be named because she might want to work for the commission in the future.
Partly because of mounting delays, several lawyers have said they now prefer to file a discrimination complaint in civil court.
But advocates say many people who cannot afford a lawyer rely on the commission to run their cases. And some have noted that the commission is also a better venue for many discrimination cases that rely on evidence typically not allowed in traditional court proceedings, such as an employee recalling what his boss told him in private.
“In a lot of these cases, there are no witnesses,” said Susan Howards of Brookline, a criminal defense attorney who represents people at MCAD. “It’s between you and your supervisor or you and someone at school.”
But Howards warns clients that it sometimes takes more than a decade to resolve a case at MCAD. “They are shocked,” she said.
The stress of waiting
Even filing a case with MCAD has become more difficult lately. The agency says it now takes three months just to get a meeting to file a complaint with a staff member – something people used to be able to do anytime at an MCAD office in Boston, Springfield or Worcester.
Then it takes an average of two more years to get a preliminary decision on whether there is enough evidence to pursue a claim. A final decision can take many years.
Of the six cases the full committee decided last year, the average wait was 10 years. This is more than double the average expectation for the four plenary committee decisions in 2010 and 2011.
One of the long-delayed cases decided last year was brought by Rigaubert Aime, a retired black prison officer from Mattapan. He filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2011 against the state prison system, saying his superiors retaliated against him for alleged racism.
An MCAD staff member initially dismissed the case after five years. Aime appealed. And then it took another five years for the full commission to confirm that decision.
Aime said the stress of waiting for a decision from MCAD all those years had hurt his friendships. And once a bodybuilder, he completely stopped going to the gym.
Aime, now 52, said there was no way to recommend going to MCAD for help:
“The wait time is going to weigh on you,” he said. “It’s going to be worse than what you actually experience in your job.”
“The waiting time is going to weigh on you. It’s going to be worse than what you actually experience at work.”
At Barnstable, Pavlov sat at her dining room table, flipping through a bulging three-ring binder of all the scraps from her work at Happy Flooring.
“They hired me to do everything,” she said, “from marketing to running their showroom, supplies, I mean, the whole shebang.”
For a moment, things seemed to be going well.
Pavlov’s personal life was going well too – she got married, bought a house with her husband and soon had a baby on the way. As the sole breadwinner at the time, she thought she would go on maternity leave briefly before returning to work.
But later in her pregnancy, after she recalled asking for help lifting heavy buckets of materials at work, the company let her go in February 2015.
The company, now called New Flooring, did not respond to requests for comment. But in an MCAD hearing, the company denied firing Pavlov because she was pregnant.
Former owner Siarhei Huba testified that he made a mistake by writing “preferably male” in the Craigslist ad listing Pavlov’s former job. “I did not mean to offend or discriminate [against] anybody. I just wanted to explain that the job requires heavy lifting,” he said.
The commission finally sided with Pavlov in late March – more than seven years after his complaint was filed. He ordered the company to pay Pavlov around $70,000 in damages.
But lawyers for New Flooring told MCAD they plan to appeal. And now Pavlov fears it could take years more before the case is behind her.
And even if she does win out, Pavlov, now 35, fears he will be hard to cash in on. So much time has passed: New Flooring changed its name and the co-owner who fired Pavlov sold his share in the company and returned to his native Belarus.
Still, Pavlov said she never plans to give up.
“You don’t treat people that way,” she said.
A smoother path to justice
Lawyers and two former MCAD employees said the commission needed a number of changes to end the delays.
The most obvious solution would be to hire more workers to handle the overwhelming case load.
“We just need to fund MCAD,” said attorney Susan Howards, who said the agency was understaffed. “And we have to take these kinds of cases very seriously because they change people’s lives.”
Some say the commission also needs to streamline its process to eliminate some time-consuming legal maneuvers such as objections and lawsuits. Another option is to put more pressure on the parties to settle their differences between themselves. The commission offers mediation, but it is optional. Murphy, the Disability Law Center attorney, thinks it should be mandatory.
“The earlier in the process you can start that conversation, the more likely there will be a resolution that both parties are happy with,” Murphy said.
Criminal defense attorney Carl Williams said if judges have deadlines to resolve cases, so should MCAD employees.
“Who at MCAD says, ‘You better do this or no one will get promoted’?” said Williams.
So maybe people filing MCAD complaints today won’t have to wait 10, 15, or 17 years to see their cases in the rearview mirror.