The City of San Antonio updated its non-discrimination policy in 2013 to include protections from being discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identification, and veteran status. But the ordinance applies mostly to city employment and companies doing business with the city.

Freshman Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) — the first openly gay, Black man elected to San Antonio’s City Council — wants the law expanded to cover private-sector businesses in San Antonio that have 15 or more employees. Those businesses already are covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (which includes gender identity and sexual orientation), and national origin.

McKee-Rodriguez submitted a request Thursday asking his colleagues on City Council to review the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, expand its protections, improve the complaint process, and launch a workers rights awareness campaign.

“People are still experiencing discrimination,” he said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall. “We need to ensure that [the perpetrators] don’t feel free to discriminate against anyone.”

The ordinance currently applies to city employment, city contracts and subcontracts, appointments to city boards and commissions, housing, and places of public accommodation, such as hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. It goes further than the federal standards to also prohibit employment discrimination based on family status, including pregnancy; age; and military veteran status.

Existing laws allow employees to file complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but McKee-Rodriguez wants them to have a local recourse with support through the process.

In addition to changing the law, the city should also pay for legal assistance for people who file complaints, McKee-Rodriguez said, “so that people know that they won’t have to [pay] for expensive, private litigation, and they won’t have to go it alone.”

“Instances of discrimination are underreported,” he said. “You may go to submit a complaint, you describe in detail the traumas that you’ve experienced, you rehash those emotions, and then what? For many, nothing happens.”

McKee-Rodriguez noted his personal experience with filing a workplace discrimination complaint with the City of San Antonio when he worked for the previous District 2 council member, Jada Andrews-Sullivan. The EEOC investigated his complaint of discrimination and harassment against Andrews-Sullivan’s chief of staff Lou Miller but no action was taken.

Technically, the ordinance already applies to private employment discrimination, the City Attorney’s Office wrote in an email to the San Antonio Report. “However, the City defers to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate.”

Since the establishment of the ordinance seven years ago through May of this year, just 108 discrimination complaints were filed — most of which were based on disability, according to data provided by the city’s Office of Equity.

None of the complaints have resulted in a citation, according to the City Attorney’s Office. “In some cases, an informal resolution can occur and the nondiscrimination ordinance currently allows for conciliation,” the office’s email said.

Violating the ordinance is a class C misdemeanor for public violations in the area of public accommodation and housing, carrying a fine of up to $500. City contractors could face contractual remedies if they fail to comply, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Melissa Ochoa, president of the San Antonio LGBT Chamber of Commerce, regularly hears stories of discrimination from the community but doesn’t trust the current system to deliver justice.

“What happens in these cases to these individuals?” she said. “How do we follow up on these individuals? How do we direct them with the confidence in knowing that there will be a listening ear?”

President of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Melissa Ochoa, speaks  outside of City Hall Thursday.
President of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Melissa Ochoa, speaks outside of City Hall Thursday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Companies that violate an expanded ordinance or have a history of discrimination could be disqualified or receive fewer points when applying for city contracts, McKee-Rodriguez said.

He’s confident that most council members will agree to at least start a conversation around revising the ordinance.

His council consideration request, which is the first he’s filed since taking office in June, was co-signed by council members Ana Sandoval (D7), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), and Mario Bravo (D1).

Sandoval and Havrda joined Phyllis Viagran (D3) at the press conference.

“That’s a majority,” McKee-Rodriguez said of the six council members indicating support for a revised ordinance. “If we took a vote right now, I’d feel good, but of course there’s going to be a lot of discussions.”

It will be up to Mayor Ron Nirenberg when or if another expansion is considered. He could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday. Nirenberg voted in favor of the 2013 expansion, which came after days of protests and hours of testimony.

At the time, opponents argued that expanding the ordinance would impede religious freedoms, freedom of speech, or freedom to conduct business. 

McKee-Rodriguez said he expects some pushback from businesses and organizations.

“I expect bigots. I expect some opposition. I expect some people who are going to be wary of the conversation,” he told reporters. “But that’s all this is right now … a conversation.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org