Backlog puts leash on jobs watchdog

By Marni Goldberg
Washington Bureau

June 17, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It's been close to four years since Wynona James, an employee of the Air National Guard, filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that investigates claims of job discrimination across the country. But she still hasn't seen a dime of the $100,000 that was awarded to her.

An administrative judge in Indianapolis last year found four Air National Guard supervisors guilty of "malicious retaliation" against James, who is black, by painting her as a terrorist. However, since the Air National Guard appealed the ruling in December, she hasn't heard a thing about payment.

"They say they are overworked," she said of EEOC staff. "I have given up in terms of seeing anything, in terms of a check or something. . . . Most people don't even want to deal with it."

James' case is just one in the growing inventory of cases yet to be resolved at the agency. The backlog rose 12 percent between 2004 and 2005, reaching 33,562 last year. The EEOC has lost 20 percent of its staff since 2001, when a hiring freeze was instituted, and it now faces budget reductions, with the Bush administration proposing to cut the agency's budget by $4 million next year.

All things considered, the EEOC's case backlog is expected to grow to nearly 48,000 by 2007.

"That's 48,000 citizens who have been harmed. That's not acceptable," said Andrea Brooks, a national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the nation's largest federal employee union.

Brooks has joined with various civil rights organizations in the Protect Your Job campaign, spearheaded by the federation, to urge the restoration of funding for the EEOC. In May, the campaign began running ads in newspapers and on radio stations across the country.

"I am still naive enough to believe that the reason people aren't in the streets and rising up is because they don't know," Brooks said.

In Chicago, the number of resolved cases is lower by 1,000 over the last five years, while the number of cases has remained roughly the same, according to the agency's Chicago district office.

For more than 40 years, the EEOC has investigated discrimination in the workplace based on sex, race, age, national origin, religion and disability. Once a charge is filed with the agency, it may be investigated, mediated or dismissed, depending on the circumstances. If the agency finds that discrimination has occurred, the case may be conciliated or brought to suit.

Reorganization plan cited

But the EEOC's ability to protect workers and job applicants is being seriously damaged, critics contend. Part of the problem, they say, is a contentious reorganization plan that has been in the works under EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez, who was appointed by President Bush for a five-year term that is to expire July 1.

Critics have charged that Dominguez, under marching orders from the White House, is complicit in an agenda to dismantle the EEOC's effectiveness, easing the burden on employers at the expense of workers.

Charles Robbins, EEOC's communications director, affirmed in an e-mailed statement that the agency, while under budgetary constraints, remains dedicated to its mission and is "committed to the vigorous enforcement of the laws prohibiting employment discrimination."

Much of the controversy surrounds a reorganization plan that includes a national call center to answer public inquiries, staffed by operators rather than the trained specialists who formerly fielded such calls.

The plan also downgraded eight of the EEOC's 23 district offices to field offices, which have less authority and fewer personnel. Four more offices were reduced to local office status, the lowest level. Many of the remaining district offices will now serve a larger population; the jurisdiction of the San Francisco office, for example, is increasing by 84 percent.

Nick Inzeo, director of the office of field operations at the EEOC, said that limited resources demand cuts be made somewhere. If supervisory staff at the district offices were not eliminated, he said, the agency would have had to cut back staffers who interact directly with people, such as investigators, mediators, litigating attorneys and program analysts.

"These are tight times, but we will continue to do our work the best we can, given the resources that we are given," Inzeo said.

He also argued that, seen in context, the backlog is not so large. According to Inzeo, more than 100,000 cases piled up at the EEOC in the mid-1990s. "I would tell you that 110,000 is not manageable," he said. "When you are dealing with a third of that number, then it is."

Although he was a vocal opponent of the reorganization plan, EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, the sole Democrat on the five-member commission, said he remains pleased with the agency's work.

"I think the union is right to point out a crisis at the EEOC," Ishimaru said, adding, "I think the EEOC as an agency, compared with other governmental agencies, is probably doing the best job out there for civil rights enforcement."

As the final portion of the reorganization plan, the EEOC headquarters staff is due to be reduced by 20 percent, so that more staff members can be sent into the field.

National call center

However, critics say the national call center is a misuse of funds because it has changed the first point of contact for those calling the EEOC from a trained investigator to a telemarketer who has received about one week of training in the agency's laws. In July, the commission will vote on whether to extend the call center's contract.

The use of a call center has caught the attention of some lawmakers, including Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who said she has been trying to bring attention to the problems at the EEOC, where she used to serve as a trial lawyer.

"My concern is that they are reducing the dollars allocated to the EEOC district offices, consolidating, and planning to use call centers to take complaints at a time when discrimination is alive and well in this country," Jones said.

In March, Jones and 111 other lawmakers wrote to the subcommittee with oversight of the EEOC, whose budget proposal for the next fiscal year is about $323 million, asking for more money for frontline staff and additional consideration as to whether additional funds will be allocated to keep the privatized call center when its two-year contract expires.

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The number of unresolved EEOC cases in 2005, a 12 percent increase from 2004


The number of unresolved EEOC cases expected by 2007

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Laws enforced by the EEOC

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act. An amendment to Title VII saying that women who are pregnant or are affected by related conditions have to be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees who have similar abilities or limitations.

Equal Pay Act. Forbids sex-based wage discrimination between men and women working in the same establishment and under similar conditions.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Prohibits discrimination against those who are 40 years old or older.

Americans With Disabilities Act, Titles I and V. Prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities who are qualified for the job.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, sections 501 and 505. Forbids discrimination against employees with disabilities in the federal sector.