EEOC to experiment with privatized customer service center

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided last week to establish a national customer service center run by a contractor, on a trial basis.

On Nov. 5, EEOC commissioners unanimously authorized the agency to solicit bids from private companies interested in operating the center over a two-year trial period. The EEOC aims to award a contract by next summer and start the test in October 2004, an agency spokesman said.

A February 2003 report from the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, recommended that the EEOC establish a central customer service center as a means of becoming more efficient and better serving the public. But talk of establishing such a center predated the NAPA report, the agency spokesman said.

The idea has sparked considerable controversy. Proponents argue that a national service center would alleviate strain on local EEOC offices. Some offices are not equipped to handle the volume of inquiries they receive, according to the NAPA report.

But Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees, said a national center would waste agency resources.

"I have serious concerns about the estimated $5 million to $8 million price tag and the effect on quality of service when civil rights enforcement is privatized," Martin said. The EEOC is bent on establishing the call center, despite widespread concerns, she said.

"I think they're jumping the gun" by soliciting bids, said Jorge Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives. He said he would like to see the EEOC collect data on inquiry pileups at district offices, to better assess which offices need help fielding customer questions. If backlogs are only a problem at a few offices, a national service center could prove unnecessary, he said.

The national center could also end up diverting resources from regional offices, Ponce said, and some offices might close as a result. "My concern is that this is just a front to downsize the EEOC's staff," he added. At a time when the number of EEO complaints filed is on the rise, the agency needs more employees, he said.

Contractors tend to lack appropriate training to field EEO questions, Ponce said, and private companies typically have high turnover rates. If the EEOC does establish a permanent national contact center, Ponce would like to see it staffed by agency employees.

EEOC commissioners also voted last Wednesday to reclassify the agency's Albuquerque, N.M., office as an area office, rather than district office, and to move its internal litigation division from the Office of Legal Counsel to the Office of General Counsel. These are merely administrative changes that will help the agency operate more efficiently, according to an agency spokesman. No employees will lose jobs as a result. All three changes "were going to happen anyway, prior to the NAPA report and any talk of reorganizing," he said.

The various changes at the agency do not amount to a reorganization or restructuring, the spokesman said. The EEOC is considering broader changes, but "regarding any large proposal, people will know it when they see it," he said.

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