Stakeholders optimistic EEOC will agree to reforms

Stakeholders committed to improving the federal sector's discrimination complaint process were optimistic Friday that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would take seriously their recommendations to fix the broken system.

A March 28 letter from civil rights organizations, law firms and the largest federal employees union asked the commission to consider seven recommendations to streamline the complaint process, including the promotion of mediation at all stages of a grievance and placing EEO directors in a more prominent position within federal agencies.

The EEOC is planning to overhaul its 1999 reforms and help combat a growing backlog of cases at many federal agencies. By late spring or early summer, EEOC hopes to print a set of draft reforms in the Federal Register, according to spokesman David Grinberg. The commission plans to release final recommendations for reform by the end of fiscal 2003.

Groups signing the letter said they are confident the EEOC will take their suggestions into account when developing ways to reform it. Coalition members, who represent a wide array of opinions, weeded out some of the more controversial ideas before presenting a final set of seven recommendations to the commission, said Joe Henderson, a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

"If we can all agree on [the recommendations], I think they can," he said.

Jorge Ponce, co-chair of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives, agreed with Henderson. He said that getting a large group of stakeholders with such divergent opinions to agree was a large achievement in and of itself. The stakeholders were able to focus on their common goals and built more synergy than they had been able to do before, he said. Ignoring such a unified coalition would not be a smart move for the EEOC, he added.

Already, the EEOC has consulted a wide range of stakeholders for help in revamping the system, according to Grinberg. "We will give the recommendations in the [coalition's] letter serious review and consideration," he said. "We're trying to reach out to all federal sector stakeholders and promote an open dialogue."

Stakeholders suggested using mediation and other forms of alternate dispute resolution more frequently during the grievance process. Specifically, the stakeholders would like the EEOC to require alternate dispute resolution even when a case is already at the hearing stage. Currently, this method is used mostly during investigations. But the stakeholders decided that the mediation process could be helpful at later stages as well.

"Experience has shown that a large percentage of cases that undergo alternative dispute resolution, after a request for a hearing has been submitted, settle," the letter said.

Grinberg declined to comment on any of the coalition's recommendations, but said the EEOC shared the stakeholders' goals of instituting comprehensive reforms that would make the discrimination complaint process at federal agencies fast, cost effective and fair. The commission already encourages mediation but would like to "take it to the next level," he said. He added that the EEOC pushed for more alternate dispute resolution in the private sector, beginning in the mid-1990s and the effort proved a large success.

The coalition also proposed that the EEOC reveal the names of supervisors or managers accused of discrimination in its decisions. Currently, the commission only prints the names of the workers filing the complaints. In addition, the coalition recommended that EEOC enforce a rule requiring EEO program directors within federal agencies to report directly to the agency head. If EEO leaders reported directly to agency heads, they would be in a better position to facilitate the coalition's six other proposed reforms, Ponce said.

The stakeholders would also like the EEOC to come up with a uniform standard that would define a claim of employment discrimination is. This way the commission could eliminate the "frivolous" claims that cause part of the backlog of cases at federal agencies. By establishing a uniform standard, the EEOC could reduce the pile of complaints clogging the system without creating a policy of prioritizing certain cases, as the commission has done in the private sector, the stakeholders said.

If agencies do not complete complaint investigations within 180 days, EEOC should require them to send the complainants a letter, informing them of their right to request an immediate hearing with the EEOC. Federal workers are often unaware of this right and are "held hostage to the agency's untimely investigation process," the stakeholders said.

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