Daily Labor Report 9/20/04

EEOC Contract Employees Will Field Queries For EEOC in Two-Year National Pilot Project

The bulk of an estimated 1 million unsolicited annual telephone calls to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will be initially handled by a contractor-operated national center beginning in mid-2005.

Under a proposal adopted Sept. 17, commissioners agreed to authorize funds to a designated contractor for the two-year, national pilot program. EEOC officials declined to identify the recipient of the multimillion-dollar contract or to provide details on its parameters until the contract is signed.

Following three hours of spirited discussion, the commission approved the proposal on a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, the sole Democrat on the panel, dissenting.

Observing that "the first lines of communications at EEOC are still rooted in the 1960s," Chair Cari Dominguez said that the outside call center will give the civil rights enforcement agency the opportunity to take a major step forward. "We're not providing the quality of service to the public that we should," Dominguez said. "This is one of the best alternatives we have. To leave things as they are would be a travesty of our mission."

Vice Chair Naomi Earp and Commissioner Leslie Silverman, both Republicans, also voted to support the proposal, characterizing the outside call center as the most efficient way to handle routine inquiries. Ishimaru, in contrast, said the work should remain within the agency. "Civil rights should not be outsourced," he declared.

Call for Agency RestructureThe call center, one of Dominguez's top priorities for the past year and a half, stems from recommendations contained in a February 2003 report by the National Academy of Public Administration, which called for a major restructuring of the commission. NAPA, an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to improve government operations, also called for a sharp reduction in the number of EEOC field offices and other organizational changes (36 DLR A-1, 2/26/03).

Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the two-year pilot project last November, following the recommendations of an internal work group of EEOC employees. The work group agreed with the NAPA recommendations and found that EEOC currently has "highly inefficient systems" for handling inquiries, according to Cynthia Pierre, director of field management programs, who headed the internal committee.

"The work group concluded that the volume of calls and inquiries currently received by EEOC cannot be effectively or efficiently handled with the agency's current infrastructure and technology and that the return on investment in a contact center would allow EEOC to realize tremendous improvement in our service capacity and effectiveness," Pierre said, in a presentation before the Sept. 17 commission vote. Currently, calls are routed through a central 800 number or answered directly by EEOC employees at the agency's 51 field offices. Call handling has been hampered by uneven staffing and "inadequate telecommunications infrastructure," said Pierre, a former district director, who reflected on her own field experiences.

The work group found that an outside call center would be significantly cheaper, she added. It estimated that costs of the contractor-operated center would be between $2 million and $3 million annually and suggested that an in-house contact center "could cost $12 million for infrastructure alone," without considering the costs of staff, space rental, and maintenance.

Trained, Tested, MonitoredThe call center, she stressed, would not displace EEOC employees, but relieve them of "collateral phone duties." Under the commission's plan, the contract employees--dubbed customer service representatives--will not process charges of discrimination, but will collect information from potential charging parties and forward that data to EEOC offices "for assessment and follow-up."

The contract employees will be trained and tested, as well as monitored by EEOC staff, she said.

"The contact center employees will not counsel or screen out potential charge filers regarding whether or not they have a charge of discrimination. Neither will they be expected to answer questions relating to complex issues of employment discrimination law," Pierre said. "However, if a caller wants to discuss a potential charge of discrimination, the customer service representative will collect and record the pertinent information using a Web-based inquiry assessment tool, and forward the information to the appropriate EEOC office for follow up."

The work group found that about 40 percent of the unsolicited calls to the agency were from individuals seeking to file a charge of employment discrimination, while the other 60 percent were from callers seeking general information that could be given through an automated message machine or requesting technical assistance or other information that could be accessed through a computer database.

Inside, Outside OppositionThe union representing EEOC employees, Capitol Hill Democrats, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of major civil rights organizations, all have expressed qualms about delegating federal government functions to an outside contractor (180 DLR A-1, 9/17/04).

Ishimaru reiterated many of those concerns at the commission meeting.

"I'm afraid this two-year experiment will bring grievous harm to those people who use our agency," he said, suggesting that the scripts used by the customer service representatives fielding calls "will have the effect--perhaps, unintentionally--of screening out those who need to use our services."

"Who is supporting this proposal?" he asked his fellow commissioners.

"If you surveyed our customer base, you'd find tremendous support," Dominguez replied. "We have failed in being responsive to our customer base. We are not serving the public as well as we should be."

The call center "will offer an opportunity to make a quantum leap forward in service," she asserted.

By Nancy Montwieler