Discrimination in the Workplace
Can a new EEOC head help minorities?
By Topher Sanders
August 22, 2006 -- The recent resignation of the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may be an opportunity for the agency to better serve workers who believe they have been victims of discrimination.
Cari M. Dominguez, who has led the agency, which is responsible for enforcing the nation’s workplace antidiscrimination laws, since 2001, will step down when her term ends at the end of this month. Naomi C. Earp, vice chair of the EEOC has been named acting chair.
Dominguez leaves the EEOC with more than 45,000 unresolved cases and, critics say, a call center that leaves the public confused and an environment that has made it more difficult for women and minorities to prove discrimination.
Under Dominguez, the burden of proof was heightened so that employees must prove their employers intended to discriminate against them, says Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau.
"Regardless of the form of discrimination it seems a person has to show that the discrimination was intentional," Shelton says. "When you have those that are enforcing the law, like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and they are interpreting that something is not discriminatory unless the employer intended to be discriminatory, it raises major problems. It’s inconsistent with the intention of the law and it ends up leaving many African Americans, other racial minorities and women without the kind of protection the EEOC and federal government is suppose to provide. It makes it extremely difficult to prove discrimination. Unless someone finds a smoking memo or someone tape records something where someone actually says something discriminatory there is very little recourse."
Hiring at the EEOC was frozen from 2001 to 2004, with the agency hiring 180 employees since the freeze lifted. With attrition, the agency’s staff has declined by 20%. Dominguez’s efforts focused on streamlining the office instead of hiring, which the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union representing 600,000 workers, says was a key factor in the increase in the number of backlogged cases, which is expected is swell to 48,000 by 2007.
"It was the chair’s unwillingness to ask for money for staffing," says Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216 (AFGE). "Granted she’s asked for money to reorganize us and downgrade offices but she never asked for money to hire people. There’s a push by the EEOC to have investigators spend less and less time with members of the public when they come into the office. It’s like there was a push to clear the waiting room, if you will, as quickly as possible and then follow up later."
EEOC spokesman David Grinberg says the office has been challenged with budget cuts just as many other government agencies have been. Dominguez was unavailable for comment.
"Many nondefense agencies have had to do more with less," Grinberg says. "That’s just a budget reality. She inherited that situation when she came in as chair at a time when the agency was strapped and she’s come in and repositioned the agency so that it operates more effectively and efficiently." The agency announced on Aug. 18 that it received authorization to hire 70 people including investigators, attorneys, and mediators.
Like Shelton, Martin says she too has seen a trend in people having to provide more information and documentation before the EEOC will investigate a claim.
"I think that’s an unfair burden to place on a member of the public who doesn’t have access to the certain offices and records about who is being hired, fired, disciplined or who is being promoted," Martin says. "Those things are really in our area of expertise and things we should be looking at. It’s like saying a people have to bring us a picture perfect case."
Monetary relief obtained for individuals who brought forth charges through the EEOC increased during Dominguez's tenure from $285,000,000 in 2001 to $372,000,000 in 2005. In 2004, the office reached a record with $415,000,000 in monetary relief going to those who filed with the office.
Still, the agency’s number of charge filings dropped from roughly 84,000 in 2002 to approximately 75,000 in 2005, supporting claims that individuals are finding it more difficult to prove discrimination.
Martin says the elimination of the EEOC’s nationwide 1-800 number and the lack of properly trained personnel at the agency’s call center often leaves the public confused and frustrated when they attempt to contact the EEOC.
"If call center employees couldn’t find something on the screen fast enough they would just tell people to call the EEOC office and that became and impediment for some people who because of work hours and financial constraints didn’t always have the ability to call the local EEOC office," Martin says. "It just puts people in a revolving door. I think it’s a real disservice to the public."
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), a former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Jimmy Carter administration, and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says Dominguez was constrained by the Bush administration.
"Chair Dominguez was a victim of the administration of which she was a part," Norton says. "For much of her term, Chairman Dominguez has had to put great energy into keeping the agency open and functioning rather than moving as aggressively ahead as we believe is required on the remaining discrimination affecting people of color, women, and disabled people."
Dominguez’s exit may be an opportunity for the office to improve, Shelton says.
"We’d very much like to see the administration choose someone who would provide real leadership and initiative in actually addressing our nation’s employment discrimination problem," he says. "We need someone that will really push the Congress and the administration to support increasing the office’s resources for such an important task in our nation."
Martin believes that the office can rebound and diminish the backlog.
"It will be a long uphill battle," she says. "But if we really focus on staffing, not only our professionals but support staff as well, I think we have a chance to level the playing field."
Martin says she’s also encouraged by Earp’s youth and race initiatives for the agency.
"She's indicated a willingness to look at some of these categories and see what we’re really doing. So in that sense, I think we have someone who is concerned about what the agency’s profile looks like around the country, giving us an opportunity to level the playing field and remove obstacles for people filling claims."
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