EEOC seeks to offer buyouts, early outs to headquarters employees

By Amelia Gruber

The agency charged with enforcing employment discrimination laws is seeking to offer some employees early retirements or buyouts as part of an effort to move 20 percent of its headquarters resources to the field.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been granted permission to offer early outs, and has requested limited buyout authority, said chairwoman Cari Dominguez in a memorandum e-mailed to staff on May 8. Early outs allow employees to retire at age 50 or older if they have 20 years of creditable service, or at any age with 25 years of service.

Details on the offers, including a timetable, positions covered and the amount of the buyouts, will be released once the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget approve the buyout request, Dominguez wrote. She cautioned that even if that request is approved, the authority will be very limited and will not apply to all retirement-eligible employees.

The window to accept the offers also will be narrow, Dominguez stated, emphasizing that both the buyout and early out options would be voluntary. All workers taking advantage of them will need to leave by June 30.

Money freed up when employees leave would be shifted toward hiring investigators, mediators and attorneys needed in field offices, Dominguez wrote. The eventual goal is to shift a fifth of headquarters resources -- equivalent to 100 jobs -- to the field, she said.

This move comes as the EEOC is working on the third phase of a restructuring effort. The first entailed establishing a national customer service center on a trial basis. The second, implemented at the beginning of this year, was a field overhaul involving downgrades for eight of 23 district offices and the addition of two local offices -- one in Mobile, Ala., and a second in Las Vegas -- bringing the overall number of offices to 53 from 51.

The next step in the restructuring effort will be the formation of a Headquarters Repositioning Review Team, with participants from both headquarters and the field, to recommend ways to improve efficiency, Dominguez said in her memo.

The EEOC budget and staffing situation has prompted an outcry from the American Federation of Government Employees, which is launching a radio and newspaper advertising campaign Wednesday to raise awareness of what it refers to as a crisis at the agency.

"The agency's status -- significant attrition and a backlog of cases numbering in the tens of thousands -- is putting the jobs of millions of Americans in jeopardy," AFGE said in a statement.

Union officials so far are committed to spending $60,000 to $100,000 on the campaign, which will run through June in major media markets and areas where lawmakers are likely to take an interest, including Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and the Washington, D.C., area. The union is hoping other organizations will give additional money to the cause, and also is dedicating a Web site, to the campaign.

"The EEOC ... is being dismantled piece by piece," a sample radio ad reads. "Why should you care? The EEOC's mission is to protect all employees and job applicants from all forms of discrimination. Without the proper funding for the EEOC, offices are downgraded or closed, your discrimination claims pile up and take longer to resolve, and the employment rights that protect your job are in jeopardy."

"So, what are you going to do when they come for you?" continues the ad, set to "Bad Boys," the theme song from "Cops."

Specifically, the union is hoping the campaign will prompt legislators to boost the agency's funding above the $323 million requested for fiscal 2007, which represents a more than $4 million cut over this year's funding. The reduced appropriation would not be nearly enough to support even the status quo, especially given the addition of two field offices, union officials said.

EEOC spokesman Charles Robbins declined to comment other than to note that most civilian federal agencies are facing tight budgets.

AFGE has long argued that the EEOC is severely understaffed, and on Tuesday said the agency has lost 20 percent of its workforce through a hiring freeze that has been in place since 2001 for all but emergency positions. Meanwhile, the agency's backlog of cases is continuing to grow, with more than 30,000 cases piled up now -- a figure that is expected to reach 48,000 in fiscal 2007, the union said.

The union also would like the EEOC to reverse its field office reorganization and stop experimenting with the national customer service center. In September 2004, the agency awarded a $4.9 million contract to Arlington, Va.-based Pearson Government Solutions to set up and run the center on a two-year trial basis. The contract is set to expire this fall, but has extension options.