Proposed EEOC budget cut draws congressional scrutiny

Members of Congress, concerned with the growing backlog of cases at the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace antidiscrimination laws, are petitioning key House appropriators for a funding increase to boost the organization's frontline staffing.

More than 100 House members signed a March 16 letter to the chairman and ranking member of the panel that oversees the agency's funding, stating that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has lost more than 575 employees, or 20 percent of its workforce, since 2001.

A spokesman for Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee, said he has not been able to discuss the issue with the congressmen yet.

The fiscal 2007 EEOC budget request is $4.2 million less than the amount appropriated for this year and $8 million less than the amount sought last year.

EEOC spokesman Charles Robbins declined to comment on the letter because it was not addressed to the agency. But he confirmed that a hiring freeze has been in effect, with exceptions for emergencies, since 2001.

The EEOC has a staff of about 2,300 and Robbins acknowledged that there has been significant attrition.

The letter, which received 113 signatures, mostly from Democrats, stated that EEOC budget projections show that the backlog of private sector discrimination charges will rise from 33,562 in fiscal 2005 to 47,516 in fiscal 2007. The agency "cannot continue to shortchange its frontline resources," the letter said.

Robbins said that those projections are no longer accurate due to the EEOC's reorganization, and that the agency hopes the "pending inventory" will remain at or below the current level "as we continue to move frontline resources to the field."

The House members who signed the letter urged the subcommittee to retain language in the next appropriations bill preventing the EEOC from reorganizing its workforce without notifying the committee, and said funding for a national call center, being tested on a pilot basis, should be reconsidered.

"For 40 years prior to the [call center] contract, questions from the public were handled by senior federal investigators," the letter stated. "In place of local community-based experienced personnel, calls are being handled nationwide by distant operators with minimal on-the-job training."

Agency spokesman Robbins said the customer service center has performed well. Another EEOC spokesman, David Grinberg, said that the purpose of the call center is to keep attorneys, investigators and mediators from having to respond to general questions so they can focus on investigating, mediating and litigating.

According to Robbins, the agency's inspector general is expected to complete a comprehensive review of the call center in May or June this year, and at that point a decision will be made on whether to continue funding it.

Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., spearheaded the letter. Neither of them serve on the appropriations subcommittee, and neither responded to requests for comment.

Gabrielle Martin, president of AFGE's National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216 and a frequent critic of the agency's budget proposals, said she believes the letter is a "precise statement" on the union's concerns.

She said members of Congress realize that the agency needs a bigger budget and that the union "would love to have funding at the level of two years ago or more."

"Having adequate staff to address our core mission is critical," Martin said. "We disserve both the public and America's workforce when we allow cases to sit in backlogs and grow old while witnesses move away or their memories about events fade over time."

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