EEOC to Vote on Nationwide Call Center for Bias Claims (Washington Post)

By Amy Joyce

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is scheduled to vote today to approve funds for a private contractor to run a nationwide call center as part of a  $5 million restructuring plan opposed by union members and some Democrats in Congress.

Under the two-year pilot program, callers to the federal anti-discrimination enforcement agency would be routed to operators instead of directly phoning one of 51 EEOC field offices.

Commission officials said the call center would replace outdated phone systems and be a faster way to respond to callers with bias claims, who often receive busy signals or have to wait for a return call.

The new National Contact Center would "basically be replacing poor service with a much more professional level of service and immediate access," said Cynthia G. Pierre, the agency's director of field management programs. "The option when people call into call centers, they'll get a live body."

The proposed vendor for the call center has not been disclosed, nor has its location.

The idea drew opposition when it was approved in principle in November  as part of a restructuring plan, which also includes consolidating the field offices into 10 or 11 mega-offices, a move pushed by commission Chairwoman Cari M. Dominguez. Opponents expressed concern that untrained contract operators would replace some of the agency's nearly 2,500 employees, but Dominguez said not one job will be lost.

Led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), 29 senators signed a letter in July asking the Senate appropriations subcommittee that approves the EEOC budget not to provide $5 million in 2005 to fund the restructuring, including a call center.

When he learned Wednesday of the scheduled vote, Kennedy asked the EEOC "to abandon this proposal."

"An EEOC National Contact Center would poorly serve the taxpayers, EEOC employees, and most important, individuals calling the Center with sensitive claims of workplace discrimination and harassment," Kennedy wrote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended this week a $327.5 million budget for the EEOC for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. That's $2.6 million more than 2004, but $23.2 million less than the Bush administration requested. The bill didn't explicitly include funds for the call center.

When the House passed the EEOC budget in June, the bill required the agency to notify lawmakers before it opens the center or transforms the nation's 51 field offices into 10 or 11 mega-offices.

The commission "did do required notification to Congress regarding spending for a contact center and we did receive approval," Pierre said.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing the agency, questioned the restructuring plan at first, but said he now favors the call center as a way to "get better service."

Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking minority member on the subcommittee, said he had "serious reservations" about the call center, but would work with Wolf "to ensure that jobs are protected and that services to the public are not jeopardized as this trial period proceeds."

The union that covers EEOC workers fears the center is a step toward closing offices and cutting jobs.

"I think there are major problems with it that stem from the amount of training they want to do, a tendency for call centers with a high turnover rate, the fact we're dealing with people's legal rights," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216. "There's a concern that the information given . . . will be incorrect or inadequate at best, that people trying to read scripts and give answers makes it seem like the commission doesn't care."

The call center idea was one of several proposed last year by the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent nonprofit chartered by Congress, as a way to cut costs for the historically under funded agency.