Discrimination issues on the agenda at EEOC conference

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Monday kicked off its annual conference looking at challenges the agency faces in handling discrimination complaints filed by federal employees.

The four-day conference in Las Vegas features discussions of several issues high on interest groups' agendas, including implementing a law to hold managers more accountable for discrimination. Union representatives and civil rights advocates said they hope the EEOC also will use the meetings as a forum to discuss staffing problems, funding shortfalls and flaws in the case processing system.

One agenda issue is implementation of the 2002 Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation (No FEAR) Act. Agencies haven't put the law in place as intended, in part because the EEOC hasn't given them adequate guidance, said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the law's author. The act, which took effect last fall, requires agencies to use their own funds rather than a general Treasury account to settle discrimination and whistleblower lawsuits. No FEAR also requires agencies to report on the volume, nature and method of resolving complaints.

The EEOC is in charge of giving agencies instructions on writing No FEAR reports, but has yet to issue final guidelines. Draft guidelines published in late January fail to establish a standard format for submitting No FEAR data, making comparisons across agencies difficult, said Leroy Warren, chairman of the Federal Sector Task Force of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The reporting is baffling," Warren said of the information published to date. "The [EEOC] needs to go back and deal with that."

In the draft instructions, the EEOC also failed to ask agencies to report on informal harassment allegations, Coleman-Adebayo said. "That's when we begin to lose [track of] a lot of complaints," she said.

The EEOC has several workshops on No FEAR scheduled for Wednesday. But Coleman-Adebayo said more attention may be needed. She said she would like the EEOC to host hearings and town hall meetings around the country to gather input on the law.

Civil rights advocates also said they'd like to see EEOC officials come up with a strategy for convincing lawmakers to grant adequate funding for fiscal 2005. Congressional appropriators have yet to settle on a final funding package for the agency, but have expressed reluctance to grant the Bush administration's request for $350.8 million. In fiscal 2004, the agency received $328 million, $7 million below the requested level.

The agency needs money to hire more investigators and support staff for field offices, said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees. EEOC officials should consider abandoning plans to establish a national contact center to handle customer inquiries, and devote more money to new hires, she said. Under current staffing levels, the EEOC is too often forced to dispose of cases using summary judgment, Warren said. Personnel problems also have forced the agency to transfer some cases to field offices far removed from where they originated, Martin said.

Stephen Spitz, an attorney at Kalijarvi, Chuzi & Newman, a Washington firm specializing in employment law, said that the EEOC has shifted cases from the Cleveland and Washington, D.C., offices to an office in San Antonio, Texas, which holds some hearings over the phone rather than in person.

"It's really impossible to assess the credibility of somebody over the phone," Spitz said. "Communication in person is very different than communication over the phone."

Jorge Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives, said EEOC officials should use this week's conference to rethink a controversial plan to expedite hearings.

The plan, unveiled in April at the EEOC's Washington field office, allows two officials to review complaints and place them on one of three tracks: "red" for dismissal, "yellow" for summary judgment in favor of one party, or "green" for a hearing.

All complaints, Ponce said, should at least get to go through the discovery process, where lawyers representing each side can question and gather evidence from the other.

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