EEOC gets grilled for slow complaint processing

klunney@govexec.com

During a crowded and occasionally tense hearing Wednesday, members of a House subcommittee expressed frustration at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's handling of discrimination complaints by federal employees.

In his testimony before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Civil Service, Michael Brostek, associate director of federal management and workforce issues at the General Accounting Office, said the rise in discrimination complaints during the last decade has overwhelmed the abilities of EEOC and federal agencies to process cases in a timely fashion. GAO also found problems with the type of data EEOC collected from agencies and the reliability of that data.

"We found that the kinds of data EEOC collected did not provide answers to such basic questions as the number of employees filing complaints, the kinds of discrimination they were alleging, or the specific conditions or events that caused them to file," Brostek said.

When asked by subcommittee chairman Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., if the EEOC had improved over the last five years, Brostek said case backlogs have actually increased amid a flurry of new complaint filings.

"There is a fatal flaw in the EEO process," said Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D-D.C., former head of the EEOC. Norton interrogated Carlton Hadden, acting director of federal operations at EEOC, on the agency's performance measures and number of case settlements. She also blasted the agency for not making more of an effort to reduce complaints and improve data collection efforts.

"Your goals look too modest. You have to incorporate in your request [to Congress] for resources a showing of efficiency. If you show efficiency, you have the credibility to get resources," Norton said.

Both Brostek and Hadden cited recent revisions to the federal EEO complaint process as an important step in revamping the system.

For example, all federal agencies are now required to establish Alternative Dispute Resolution programs, which are designed to settle disputes outside a courtroom using some form of arbitration or mediation.

Witnesses from the Postal Service and the Air Force praised ADR efforts and said the mediation process has worked well in their agencies. Roger Blanchard, assistant deputy chief of personnel at the Air Force, emphasized the flexibility each agency should have to develop its own ADR program.

Gerald R. Reed, president of Blacks in Government, said Congress should criminalize certain civil rights violations. Federal managers should be held personally liable for discrimination, he said. "If there is no incentive to enforce [the Civil Rights Act], why do we have a process in the first place?" he asked.

Hadden also noted that an interagency task force is currently devising options for improving the federal EEO process.

Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this article, we incorrectly reported that three-fourths of federal EEO complaints are dismissed. In his testimony, the EEOC's Carlton Hadden explained that three-fourths of complaints in an experimental pilot program at the Census Bureau were dismissed for reasons such as failure to state a claim and timeliness. We regret the error.

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