Agencies processing discrimination complaints faster

Federal agencies cut the average time it takes to process equal employment opportunity complaints to 186 days in fiscal 2006, down from 237 days the year before, according to a new report from the agency responsible for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination.

Despite the overall improvement, less than a third of the profiled agencies had average investigation completion times shorter than 180 days, according to the 2006 Annual Report on the Federal Workforce, released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission late last week. Federal law requires that all agency investigations be finished within 180 days.

Within the commission, which handles hearings and appeals on EEO complaints that can't be resolved by agency investigations, processing times and the case backlog have risen since fiscal 2005, the report stated. It cited staffing pressures and inadequate complaint monitoring systems as barriers to more efficient processing.

Within the Agencies

Under the current system, agencies are responsible for investigating and issuing decisions on EEO complaints. But only 17 out of 59 agencies profiled completed investigations within the 180-day limit in fiscal 2006. One of the agencies profiled did not complete any investigations that year.

The Office of Personnel Management took an average of 105 days to conclude an EEO investigation in fiscal 2006, well ahead of the government average of 186 days. OPM also reduced the total time it took to close complaints to 131 days from 346. Stephen Shih, chief of the EEO office at OPM, said that improvements in technology, training and staffing have kept his office on top of complaint processing.

Since arriving at OPM in 2004, Shih has worked with the office to put in place an automated database for complaint tracking and an automated filing system. "We no longer need a staff member to reproduce files," he said. "It saves money."

Shih also noted that the office has an adequate size staff, and has instituted "results-based performance accountability measures" for all employees, who also attend annual classroom training.

The strong relationship that Shih says he enjoys with OPM Director Linda Springer might be part of the reason his office has reported success in turning over cases. Shih said he receives "tremendous financial support" from OPM leadership.

Other EEO offices are not necessarily so lucky.

Jorge Ponce, co-chair of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives, said that the biggest challenges to EEO executives are funding and staffing. "They need bodies in the office," Ponce said. "So if someone retires or leaves the office, they have staff, and can bring someone else in."

Ponce also raised the concern that EEO managers don't always have direct access to agency leaders. "They need to be able to make their case directly to leadership, rather than having someone who's not in the EEO office make it for them," he said. "They [EEO executives] are the experts."

At the EEOC

The numbers in the report indicate that the EEOC itself has had trouble processing complaints. Once an agency completes an investigation and makes its decision, the complainant can request a hearing before an EEOC judge. Statutes require that the EEOC conclude the hearing within 180 days, a requirement that often goes unmet. In fiscal 2005, the EEOC took an average of 249 days to finish hearings; in 2006, the number rose to 274 days.

Similar increases have occurred within the EEOC's federal appeals department, the report said. After an EEOC hearing ends, the agency and the original complainant can review the decision. Both have the opportunity to request an appeal, which goes to the Office of Federal Operations. The OFO's inventory rose from 3,610 cases in fiscal 2005 to 3,887 in 2006. The average processing time for an appeal also rose, to 220 days from 194.

Although there is no statute requiring that appeals be completed in a certain time, an OFO official said the office works toward an internal goal of closing 60 percent of cases within 180 days. He also cautioned against looking at the increase in processing time as an increase in inefficiency.

"Often, if we work on our backlog of older complaints, the average processing time for a complaint will go up because that complaint was filed a long time back," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But that doesn't mean we've gotten more inefficient."

Rachel Shonfield, legislative coordinator for American Federation of Government Employees Council of EEOC Locals 216, said the EEOC is "trying to play with the numbers." She said the "pending inventory has gone up because they have fewer employees."

The OFO official said an EEOC hiring freeze has made operations more difficult. "There are a number of ways we deal with a shrinking budget," he said, adding that the agency recruits summer interns and attorneys it has worked with in the past to do certain tasks.

In terms of improving efficiency, OFO has upgraded its information technology systems and is working toward instituting a virtual private network through which attorneys can access files from outside the office, the official said. The office also screens files in advance for common language patterns.

But according to Shonfield, there's no guarantee that OFO's efficiency increasing measures are helping the end customer -- the person filing the complaint. "Use of the word 'efficiency' is just form over substance," she said. "Efficiency could possibly be detrimental to an employee's rights to discovery in a trial since [the office] might be more likely to judge the claim incorrectly up front."

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