EEOC office move is part of effort to control costs


By Amelia Gruber

A controversial Equal Employment Opportunity Commission plan to relocate its Washington headquarters is part of a broader effort to free up resources to tackle growing backlogs of employment discrimination complaints, the agency's chair told lawmakers Thursday.

EEOC faced an inventory of nearly 40,000 private sector charges at the end of fiscal 2006, a 19 percent increase over the previous year, said Naomi Earp, the agency's chair, in testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee. The inventory may reach 67,000 by the end of fiscal 2008, she said. Piles of hearing requests and appeals from federal employees also are growing, she testified.


Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee, expressed concern that EEOC did not -- in its fiscal 2008 budget request for $327.7 million -- seek an increase in staff over the 2,381 full-time employees budgeted for 2007. The agency's budget has been essentially flat for the past five years and EEOC has lost at least 500 employees, most of them front-line workers responsible for investigating claims, Mikulski said.


Earp declined to discuss any staff levels beyond those sought in the Bush administration's budget request. Pressed by Mikulski, she pledged to supply the subcommittee with a backlog reduction strategy and goals. Earp outlined several measures to reduce inventories using existing resources, including enhanced training in addition to rent control.


Meanwhile, an upcoming office move that is part of the effort to rein in rent and is slated to affect about 500 employees at the agency's downtown Washington headquarters and field office has prompted an outcry from employees. In e-mails circulated last week, workers voiced concerns about the safety, accessibility and amenities at a more cost-effective site recommended by the General Services Administration.


Earp said in a memorandum Tuesday that she met with officials at GSA, the government's main property management arm, Monday to discuss these issues, and was told amenities should be in place by the time EEOC moves.


"Quite simply, our options are limited," Earp wrote. "The next best location shares the same issues as the best location."


EEOC employees say the site in question is a developing business district north of Massachusetts Ave. and the Capitol, known as the NoMa Corrridor. Earp has not confirmed the location because a lease has yet to be signed, but she also has not countered the claims.


A Web site promoting NoMa calls it "one of the most exciting redevelopment areas in metropolitan Washington," noting that the section of the city is "already home to major corporations, prominent government agencies, stylish new retailers and professional service firms that have recognized the area's unlimited potential."


But in their e-mails, EEOC employees cited concerns that, though the area is being revitalized, it may not be developed enough to be safe by July 2008, which is when the agency's current lease at L and 18th streets N.W. in downtown Washington expires.


One message stated, "While the area may be classified as a 'prime commercial office district' by some pre-determined standard, the reality is that residents of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area do not consider it to be so. It is generally considered to be a wasteland of dance clubs, empty warehouses, hotels/motels and high crime."


The employee also said the new location would "diminish our presence as an agency and deter potential charging parties from physically contacting the agency."


In another e-mail, an EEOC employee and longtime Capitol Hill resident echoed the safety concerns, noting, "My fear is not idle, but comes from knowledge that the neighborhoods near the building are dangerous. I don't think I should have to face this type of fear as a part of working for the federal government."


Earp said in her memo that a lease should be signed within the next few weeks. She noted that rejecting the recommended site would initiate a lengthy process requiring EEOC to negotiate an extension of its current lease -- a proposition that would be costly even if the building owner agreed to the request.


"EEOC is defined not by our headquarters address but by our passion, determination and commitment to promoting equal employment opportunities," Earp wrote in the memo. "That said, I understand that this is an issue of extreme importance to you and I want to reassure you that I intend to make the move as smooth as possible."