NAACP, Labor, Congress question reorganization of Equal Employment commission
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has announced that on July 8 it will vote on a major reorganization meant to improve service and reduce costs.
But several leading labor unions as well as advocacy groups representing people of color—including the NAACP and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)—contend that the reorganization will only hamper employment protections, and strain an already struggling federal agency.
The EEOC enforces all federal anti-discrimination job protections including the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, for local, state and private employees. Although no federal law prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, some HIV-positive people are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, the 1996 ruling in Romer v. Evans—which threw out Colorado’s Amendment 2 barring any state or local sexual orientation nondiscrimination measures—established that gay and lesbian plaintiffs can use the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment to litigate discrimination claims.
The EEOC plan calls for expanding jurisdictional areas of several district offices, but reducing the number of those offices from 23 to15, as well as increasing the number of field offices from one to nine and adding two new local offices in Las Vegas and Mobile, Alabama. The intention is to reduce the number of administrators and grow the staff involved in conducting investigations and litigation.
“Given the shifting demographics, changing business environment, explosive technological advancements, and budgetary considerations of our times, this plan will recast the Commission in a stronger and more viable position to carry out its mission,” said Cari Dominguez, the EEOC chairwoman, in a recent press release.
The reorganization has been a matter of dispute since it was announced. The redistricting plan was first to be voted on at a commission meeting on March 24.
According to Andrea Brooks the vice president for Women and Fair Practices at AFGE, the public announcement of that March meeting was only made 24 hours in advance, and no public comment on the plan was ever sought.
AFGE sued the commission to stop the meeting under a government sunshine law that requires at least ten-day notice of such a meeting. Although the case is still pending, the EEOC board of commissioners decided to seek “public input” until June 22, instead of making a final decision in March.
“They didn’t want to have their plans overturned in court because they weren’t following the law,” Brooks said.
“They will be consolidating and closing offices. It’s going to be more difficult to find EEOC in the neighborhood,” said Gabriel Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals, a group established by AFGE to monitor EEOC effectiveness on the ground nationwide. “It will definitely diminish a local presence, and make people in under-represented areas like Montana or Wyoming more vulnerable.”
Martin said the reduction of field offices, and spreading of their duties to the remaining field offices, will mean less staff to process complaints, which the EEOC admits are backlogged by about 30,000. The reorganization would also dramatically increase the cas loads of some offices. The San Francisco district office will have the population area it serves increased by 84 percent.
According to the EEOC Web site, the staff at those offices eliminated will be transferred to front-line positions.
The reorganization is the second part of a three-part process the EEOC has undertaken to fulfill Pres. George W. Bush’s order to make federal agencies more customer and results-oriented. The first step in that process established a National Call Center where people could register complaints. The third will be a streamlined Washington, D.C. office.
Opponents of the EEOC reorganization direct particular criticism to the newly established call center. Brooks said the call center approach now in affect trivializes complaints, and turns what should be a very personal, affirmative process into a confrontation with a faceless bureaucracy. Previously, complainants could speak directly to an investigator, but the call center is staffed with personnel who are required to receive only a few weeks of training.
“In our opinion, they are dismantling the organization,” Brooks charged. “They have been under a hiring freeze for the past three years. They don’t ask for enough money to replace staff, and judges and attorneys are forced to do all their own clerical work. And now they are decreasing the ability of the EEOC to investigate and pursue complaints.”
According to critics, the EEOC has not released any information regarding how it determined what offices and positions would be eliminated or created, and therefore, interested parties have been unable to objectively evaluate the plan.
At the final public hearing held in Washington, D.C. prior to the commission vote on July 8, EEOC Chairwoman Dominguez listened as the agency’s field program officer, Nicholas Inzeo, acknowledged that some of the information about how the reorganization was conceived that had been made available to the public was out of date, although he did not specify what information.
At the same meeting, representatives of the NAACP complained they had yet to be given any data justifying the scope and size of the reorganization.
This week even Congress weighed in. The Senate appropriations committee, which oversees the EEOC, issued a statement critical of the agency in its 2006 appropriations bill for the Departments of Commerce and Justice and related agencies.
“The committee remains concerned over the pending Equal Opportunity Employment commission repositioning plan and its impact on the Commission’s ability to perform its investigations and enforcement duties,” the report said.
The report also took the Commission to task for its rush to vote without public input.
“Until all interested parties have an opportunity to have their comments heard, the Committee also expects the Commission to take into consideration those public comments prior to any vote of the Commissioners,” the congressional report concluded.
Despite this recommendation, the EEOC Web site now declares that the public comment period is over.
The Senate committee also instructed the EEOC to submit a full analysis of the commission’s current investigations and enforcement, and any changes that might result before it implements its reorganization plan.
Questions to the EEOC press office about the reorganization were simply referred to the agency’s Web site.
Regarding the question of how the reorganization decision was made the Web site says only, “the criteria… included factors such as workload, economics of scale, changes in population, demographics, geographic proximities, and employment data.”