The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Postal Service announced the first national alternative dispute resolution (ADR) partnership between two federal agencies last Thursday. Under the program, EEOC administrative judges will send nearly all requests for hearings in discrimination cases filed by Postal Service employees back to the agency for mediation to help foster faster settlements.
Administrative judges now settle discrimination cases in hearings and issue decisions within 180 days, but the new program between the Postal Service and EEOC promises to cut the time in half.
"This is a creative use of a powerful tool--mediation--to settle differences in a timely, cost-effective, and mutually satisfactory way," said Cari M. Dominguez, chair of the EEOC.
Agencies have used alternative dispute resolution programs since the mid-1990s to cut the time and cost of traditional administrative and legal procedures used to resolve personnel and contractual disputes. Regulations requiring agencies to put ADR in place took effect in November 1999. ADR includes a wide range of techniques, such as mediation, fact-finding and arbitration.
"We're very confident that overall mediation will eliminate steps at the back end of the complaint process, and the net result will be increased efficiency," said David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman. About 3,500 discrimination complaints filed each year against the Postal Service reach the EEOC. Administrative judges will now send those cases back to the Postal Service, but if the parties cannot reach a settlement through ADR, complaints will revert to the administrative judge.
"Mediation at the hearing stage provides another opportunity to empower parties to a dispute to recognize each other's points of view and to be recognized," said Anthony Vegliante, vice president for labor relations at the Postal Service. "Working with the EEOC on this initiative is something we do gladly and with a commitment to further improve our process for the benefit of all our employees."
In fiscal 2001, more than 11,000 EEO complaints were filed against the Postal Service, about 48 percent of the total number of complaints filed at federal agencies.
The Postal Service, which is the largest government employer after the Defense Department, has been successful with its own internal mediation program and was eager to join forces with the EEOC, according to Carlton Hadden, director of federal operations at EEOC. "We are hoping other federal agencies will see the value in our partnership with the Postal Service," Hadden said.
The success of similar mediation pilot tests between the EEOC and the Postal Service in Florida and Texas, among other states, prompted the two agencies to replicate their partnership on a federal level, according to Paula Choate, the EEOC's director of field coordination programs. The EEOC has also had success with mediation programs in the private sector, Hadden and Choate said. "In the private sector, cases that go through mediation are processed in 84 days on average, compared with 180 days without mediation," according to Choate. "There is a 66 percent success rate in private sector mediation programs," she said.
Although introducing mediation at the hearing stage technically adds another step to the overall complaint process and runs the risk of prolonging it if ADR doesn't produce an agreement, mediation is an important alternative, Hadden said. "We can't afford to not explore all the options, and mediation is an option that works and one we should look at."
Mediation is also a more proactive solution to the complaint process than adjudication, according to Doug Gallegos, an attorney advisor in EEOC's office of federal operations.
"ADR goes further in repairing the relationship between the two parties than adjudication does," he said. "Parties retain more control over the outcome in mediation than in a situation where an administrative judge makes a finding."