EEOC approves plan for national customer service center

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Friday approved a plan to set up a contractor-operated national customer service center on a two-year trial basis.

The four commissioners decided last week to hold a public meeting to discuss and vote on an Aug. 26 proposal. It includes the name of the contractor recommended to work on the pilot project, but the Procurement Integrity Act prevented the commissioners from revealing the company's identity or discussing details of the proposal until after an official award is announced.

Three of four commissioners endorsed the plan, with Stuart Ishimaru, the newest member, casting the lone dissent. The center would serve as a clearinghouse for public inquiries now handled at field offices, providing "timely and consistent information about EEOC programs, products and services," a March 8 request for contractor proposals stated.

EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez sold the proposal as a "quantum leap" forward. Agency officials hope to get the center off the ground by April 2005, but first must brief lawmakers on the latest plans. The idea of a contractor-operated national service center already has encountered significant opposition on Capitol Hill.

"We are stuck in the '60s, ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to customer service," Dominguez said. The current handling of inquiries is "worse than inadequate," she said. Field offices aren't equipped to handle the volume of unsolicited calls received, and customers often end up getting a busy signal, she explained.

Many of the people calling field offices seek general information, said Cynthia Pierre, head of a working group convened to consider service center options. The offices receive about a million unsolicited calls each year, the working group found. Sixty-one percent of callers ask for general information, according to Pierre, with the remaining 39 percent asking about filing employment discrimination charges.

"When I was a district director, it hurt every time I received a letter from someone saying that they called the office to file a charge and got a constant busy signal each time and finally did not get a call through until it was too late to meet the statutory time limits," Pierre said. "In these cases, rights were lost that we could not give back."

The proposed center will open new channels of communication, Dominguez and EEOC Vice Chairwoman Naomi C. Earp said. EEOC is one of the few federal agencies lacking a general e-mail address, Earp noted. "In 2004 . . . not having a general e-mail address is like not having a main telephone number," she said.

Earp also emphasized that EEOC only will run the service center on a pilot basis. Opposition isn't surprising, she added. "Organizational changes like these are always difficult," she said. "They are particularly difficult in organizations like ours-where employees are passionate about the work they do."

The customer service center might help EEOC handle inquiries more efficiently, but won't necessarily improve customer service, Ishimaru argued. He acknowledged that the agency is currently unable to provide an adequate level of service, but said he feels the problems could be at least partly resolved by hiring more field employees and improving in-house technology.

Ishimaru also raised concerns about the quality of service likely to be provided by contract employees. They likely would receive minimal training and work at low wages, he said, adding that they would have an incentive to dispose of calls quickly, without necessarily discussing questions in depth.

"I am also concerned that, if approved, this proposal is just the beginning of further changes-cloaked, as this call center has been, in the language of improving efficiency-that will weaken the EEOC's ability to perform its core mission of strongly enforcing employment discrimination laws through investigations and litigation," Ishimaru said in a written statement distributed at the meeting.

The National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, originally recommended the central service center, along with various other reforms, in a February 2003 report.

Critics question the plan to contract out the center. Work there should be considered "inherently governmental," Ishimaru said. Employees would handle very sensitive, personal questions, he said, and some might not call the center unless guaranteed that a well-trained federal employee would answer the phone.

The commission also failed to give serious consideration to the option of keeping the work in-house, Ishimaru said. To set up a customer service center without the assistance of a contractor, EEOC would need to spend $12 million, the agency working group estimated in a report published a year ago. In contrast, a contractor could run a center for $2 to $3 million per year after a transition phase, the group predicted.

But Ishimaru said he isn't sure where that estimate came from. He added that when he asked the group for more details, he "was given something that frankly would fit on [a] napkin." The calculations failed the "laugh test," he said.

Members of the House and Senate appropriations committees also have expressed reservations, and have instructed the commission to keep them better informed about the customer service center. Lawmakers have yet to allocate money for EEOC's fiscal 2005 budget.

A preliminary House version of the Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary appropriations bill asks EEOC to inform lawmakers of plans before advancing any restructuring, but allows the agency to set up a national, contractor-operated center after sharing a spending plan. The Senate has yet to vote on appropriations, but union members are pushing for stronger language in that version of the spending package.

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