Changes to EEO complaint process slated for 2003

A plan to overhaul the Equal Employment Opportunity grievance system for federal employees will be ready by September 2003, EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez said Tuesday.

"That's a little ambitious, but hey, we're ambitious here," Dominguez said after a day-long EEOC meeting where stakeholders aired their grievances with the federal sector discrimination redress process. "This is among the top two regulatory things we'll be doing this fiscal year."

Many federal agencies have backlogs of thousands of EEO complaints and spin-off complaints. Agencies have 180 days to complete an investigation of a complaint. After 180 days, a federal employee can request a hearing before the full Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Once jurisdiction shifts to the EEOC, the agency cannot continue its investigation without a judge's approval.

On Tuesday, the commissioners listened as officials from various federal agencies, union representatives and federal employee advocates complained that the process was too lengthy, the system lacked the ability to weed out frivolous cases, and EEOC often failed to penalize agencies for missing deadlines.

EEOC has vowed to reform the federal sector redress system, and Dominguez said she expected to have a proposal for changes ready by the spring and a final plan developed by the end of fiscal 2003.

"Typically, the EEOC is quite involved in the private sector, and I think it's time we became more involved in the federal sector and make the federal sector a model workplace," Dominguez said.

Stopping short of revealing what measures the EEOC was considering, Dominguez noted that many of the witnesses told the commission that alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, were effective in helping to clear up backlogs of complaints at various agencies.

"EEO complaints really come down to communication issues," said Barbara Pope, assistant secretary for the State Department's Office of Civil Rights. "Often times the complaint has nothing to do with what's on paper. It's about wanting to be heard and being valued."

Pope testified that her agency has nearly eliminated its backlog of discrimination cases through several reforms, including making it mandatory for management to participate in mediation if an employee requested the measure.

In April, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Postal Service formed a partnership to help reduce the time it took to process complaints at the Postal Service. Under the REDRESS II (Resolve Employment Disputes Reach Equitable Solutions Swiftly) 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.

Ideas for reform included improving the quality of investigations; allowing the Office of Personnel Management to deal with non-EEO complaints, such as personality conflicts; and sorting complaints into three categories-fast track, regular track and complex track-to help expedite the complaints process. The EEOC is also considering whether to define a time frame for holding a hearing after it's requested, certifying mediators, developing penalties for agencies that miss deadlines and increasing EEO funding.

"When the government fails to safeguard the workforce from discrimination, it puts the public at risk," said Rawle King, chairman of the national legislative review committee for Blacks In Government.

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