Civil rights group decries shortfall in EEOC funding

Over the past two decades, Congress has deprived the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of funds necessary to remain adequately staffed, a civil rights group said in a report published Tuesday.

Between fiscal 1980 and fiscal 2004, the EEOC's workforce dwindled by 943 full-time employees, the Federal Sector Task Force of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People reported, using statistics collected from the agency. The decline is largely attributable to Congress' consistent failure to meet the agency's budget requests, said Leroy Warren Jr., chairman of the task force.

At current staff levels, the EEOC is unable to provide timely service to federal employees filing discrimination complaints, Warren said. The task force called upon Congress to address the problem by granting the agency's full fiscal 2005 budget request.

"The task force has . . . received numerous, unsolicited comments from current and former EEOC employees who are deeply troubled and concerned that the EEOC is on a planned starvation diet, with the long-term result being an agency that will eventually fail or become basically inoperative and lacking in public respect," Warren wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Lawmakers have yet to arrive at a final fiscal 2005 appropriations package for the EEOC. But in initial versions of spending bills, both the House and Senate granted the agency far less than the requested level of funding. The House version granted the EEOC nearly $335 million in fiscal 2005, more than $15 million below the request of about $350 million, and Senate appropriators allotted $327.5 million, $23.2 million below the request.

EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez's fiscal 2005 budget proposal seeks a $26 million increase over funds available in fiscal 2004. The increase would allow the EEOC to add 100 full-time enforcement employees, she testified before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary in March.

"While we have succeeded in reducing our inventory of private sector charges and federal sector complaints over the past several years, we foresee a rising inventory of charges in the private sector through fiscal 2005," Dominguez testified. "Without additional resources, the gains made in reducing the backlog of private sector charges and case processing time cannot be sustained."

In urging Congress to grant the full fiscal 2005 request, Warren referred to fiscal 2003, when the EEOC had to seek a $15 million budget boost as part of a $79 billion war supplemental spending bill in order to avoid sending employees on 16 to 19 days of unpaid leave.

But David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman, said that while the agency could always use more money to hire field investigators, enhance technology and improve mediation and training programs, the levels approved in preliminary House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2005 appropriations bills represent an increase over 2004 and would be adequate.

"Historically speaking, it is rare for the EEOC to receive the president's full budget request," Grinberg said. "That's really the exception rather than the rule during tight budget times."

Some lawmakers and union representatives also remain skeptical of the EEOC's plans for using what money is allotted. The agency recently awarded a $4.9 million contract to Pearson Government Solutions, an Arlington, Va.-based company, to set up a national customer service center on a two-year trial basis. The EEOC's fiscal 2005 budget request included a $3 million increase for the center and other "repositioning" efforts.

Agency officials have said the customer service center is designed to help handle large volumes of general inquiries more efficiently. But Ericka Guthrie, an EEO specialist and attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the call center will divert money from where it's really needed.

Lawmakers and union officials also expressed concern over the EEOC's decision to outsource the service center without offering federal employees a chance to work there.

"Employees concerned about job discrimination have long had the right to contact EEOC and speak with a trained staff member in their local community, not a faceless call center person with limited knowledge of the law and no familiarity with local businesses and local problems," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

In July, Kennedy and 28 other Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary expressing reservations about the center. "In view of the EEOC's other budget needs-such as hiring additional investigators, attorneys, mediators and hearings officers to carry out the essential mission of the agency-millions of dollars should not be spent on a risky call center proposal or unjustifiable restructuring," the letter stated

Rep. Jose Serrano, ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary, is "not pleased" that the EEOC has moved forward on the service center plans and is "closely monitoring the situation," said spokesman Ben Allen. Serrano will continue to work with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., to "make sure there aren't serious violations of customer service standards," he added.

In addition, Serrano will watch to ensure that no EEOC employees lose their jobs when the pilot project gets off the ground. EEOC officials have said that they decided to contract out the center because they lacked the in-house resources to set it up, and also have pledged that no federal employees will be laid off as a result of the two-year test.

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