State Department overhauls discrimination complaint process

The State Department has nearly eliminated its backlog of discrimination cases by contracting out equal employment opportunity investigations and increasing the budget of its Office of Civil Rights, according to department officials. At the beginning of the Bush administration, 83 of the 129 cases in the department's complaint backlog were more than a year old. Last month the number had declined to 17 cases. Many federal agencies have backlogs of thousands of EEO complaints and spin-off complaints. An agency has 180 days to complete an investigation of a complaint. After 180 days, the complainant can request a hearing before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Once jurisdiction shifts to the EEOC, the agency cannot continue its investigation without a judge's approval. In an EEOC rating of complaint processing efforts last year, State came in 76th of 79 agencies examined. It took an average of two years for the department to process complaints, State officials said. Some cases took as long as five years to resolve. When Secretary of State Colin Powell came on board, he deemed the complaint process unsatisfactory and charged Assistant Secretary Barbara Pope with reforming the system. "He didn't believe that this was a building or department that had a lot of discrimination," Pope said. "He figured it must be in the process. He saw that it really is a leadership issue." Powell won a budget increase-from $150,000 to $800,000--for the agency's Office of Civil Rights, tied performance ratings for EEO staffers to the time it took to process complaints and made managers and supervisors accountable for fixing the system. The department outsourced all of its EEO investigations until the backlog was eliminated, approached employees with pending EEO cases and offered up mediation as an alternative to the traditional EEO complaints resolution process. It then began a "mediation blitz," holding at least 16 sessions a week to settle old cases and move them off the books. "EEO complaints really come down to communication issues," Pope said. "Oftentimes the complaint has nothing to do with what's on paper." Most importantly, Pope said, the department now requires its EEO office to finish processing complaints in 180 days, well within established federal rules, which require only that the investigation of a complaint be finished in that time frame. "The credibility of the office has really gone up," said Hattie Baldwin, principal deputy of the Civil Rights office. "Of the 350 contacts we had in 2001, only 15 percent became formal complaints."
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