The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is expected to approve a proposal authorizing funds for a contractor-operated national call center Sept. 17, over strong opposition from the union representing agency employees and the sole Democrat on the four-member panel.
The call center is one of the first steps of a planned agencywide restructuring program and a top priority of EEOC Chair Cari Dominguez, who has said the outsourcing would improve efficiency at EEOC and could save the agency up to $10 million a year.
Under the proposal, a private contractor would be engaged to handle the approximately 1 million routine telephone inquiries that currently are directed to EEOC field offices. An internal commission task force found that about 40 percent of those calls were from charging parties, while the other 60 percent were from callers seeking general information that could be given through an automated message machine or from callers requesting technical assistance or other information that could be accessed through a computer database.
Commissioners will vote on the authorization of funds for the call-center contract at an open meeting Sept. 17, without public discussion of contract specifics, according to an EEOC spokeswoman.
A recommendation for the contract award was submitted to the commission for approval in August, and the Sept. 17 meeting will give commissioners the opportunity to deliberate on the authorization of funds, Jennifer Kaplan told BNA. EEOC acquisition policy requires approval by the commission for the obligation of funds for contracts of $100,000 or more, but details on the contract itself are confidential, she added.
Unanimous Approval, Continued CriticismAlthough the commission unanimously voted to approve the two-year pilot program last November, since then the proposal has continued to face criticism inside and outside the agency.
"I'm very concerned about contracting out an inherently governmental service," Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru told BNA Sept. 16. "The EEOC was created by Title VII to be the primary enforcement agency for employment discrimination complaints. Answering public questions is a fundamental part of our mission, and shouldn't be contracted out to minimally trained persons making a low wage at a call center."
Ishimaru, who was not at the agency when the initial vote took place, cited studies by the Government Accountability Office and the American Immigration Lawyers Association which, he said, revealed poor performance records at outside call centers dealing with Medicare and INS questions. "I fear this is the first step to make EEOC a 'virtual' agency and move the government away from providing strong civil rights enforcement," Ishimaru said.
The American Federation of Government Employees also has opposed the privatized call center, asserting that the work should be performed by EEOC employees rather than contractors. By contracting out the call center work without a public-private job competition EEOC is skirting an Office of Management and Budget directive (Circular A-76), which governs the federal government's competitive sourcing program, the union charged.
Gabrielle Martin, president of AFGE's National Council of EEOC Locals, disputed the agency's contention regarding cost savings and said that in-house employees "can help the public better and cheaper" than contract workers.
When EEOC was established under Title VII, "the idea was for commission employees, not telemarketers, to enforce the law and provide advice and guidance to the public," Martin said in a statement released from the union's Denver headquarters Sept. 15. "Providing guidance to the public regarding federal statutes barring discrimination in employment is an inherently governmental function."
Last summer, the House of Representatives also became involved in the controversy. A House-passed appropriations measure (H.R. 4754), that would provide EEOC with a total budget authority of $335 million for fiscal 1995, incorporated language requiring EEOC to notify the appropriations subcommittee in advance of any restructuring or reorganization.
An EEOC official said last month that the commission had already briefed the House committee on the call center plan and was moving forward in the hopes of launching the center by early 2005 (171 DLR A-9, 9/3/04).
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed its version of the spending bill (S. 2809) Sept. 15, which would provide $327.5 million to EEOC, but does not include the restrictive language.
By Nancy Montwieler