Senate Panel Approves $327 Million for EEOC

By Christopher Lee

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; Page A19

The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a fiscal 2007 budget for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of $327 million. The amount, part of a larger spending bill, is the same as the EEOC got this year -- but $4 million more than the Bush administration had requested.

The decision cheered EEOC advocates, who say the agency, with a shrinking workforce and an expected backlog of 47,516 charges of employment discrimination this year, is falling behind in enforcing civil rights laws. The agency logged 75,428 complaints in 2005 and more than 79,000 the previous year.

Advocates say the agency was weakened by a reorganization last year that downsized several district offices; created offices in Las Vegas and Mobile, Ala.; and redeployed some staff members to enforcement, litigation and customer service positions.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with EEOC funding, said the bill would reverse a downgrading of the agency's Baltimore office. "I was very concerned to hear about the EEOC's restructuring plan, which undermined the enforcement of our civil rights laws and targeted Baltimore specifically," she said in a statement.

No date has been set for a vote by the full Senate. The bill must be reconciled with the version passed by the House that provided $322 million for the agency.

EEOC officials have acknowledged that funding has been tight and that the agency has trimmed its staff by more than 19 percent since 2001. But they maintain they have enough resources to do the job and that the reorganization will help.

The EEOC endorsed part of the reorganization yesterday when commissioners voted 3 to 2 to extend the contract for a call center run by Pearson Government Solutions in Lawrence, Kan. The idea behind the National Contact Center was to provide a single point of contact for the EEOC and free up EEOC employees to concentrate on serious reports of workplace discrimination.

A report completed last month for the EEOC's inspector general's office, however, found that in its first year the call center handled 269,693 calls -- far fewer than the anticipated 1.2 million -- in part because of a decision to limit calls during the pilot period. The center saved the agency about seven full-time positions, not the expected 21, which amounted to $489,830 in annual savings, the IG report found. The agency has spent $2.9 million on the center and expects to spend an additional $2.5 million over the next year, EEOC officials said.

Evaluators recommended that the agency route more calls to the center, provide more training to call takers, and develop better communications between the center and EEOC field offices. EEOC officials noted a recent customer satisfaction survey on which the call center scored a 77, compared with the federal government average of 71.

"There is always room for improvement and another year will provide the time to ensure that the NCC is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible," EEOC chief Cari M. Dominguez, who voted to extend the contract, said in a statement.

Gabrielle Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council of EEOC Locals, noted that the IG report found an annual turnover of 36 percent at the call centers and said the job could be done better by full-time EEOC employees.

"I've implored the agency to hire some more of those people," she said. "They can build a better knowledge base, they can see the cases all the way through."