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Contractors lobby against Labor Department reporting requirements

A battle is brewing between federal contractors and representatives of women's and minority groups over federally mandated paperwork that is designed to gauge workforce diversity among companies that do business with the government.

A coalition of government contractors is trying to convince the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) to reduce and streamline its requirements for statistical information about employment and compensation patterns. Much of the paperwork that the coalition is targeting was implemented during the Clinton administration and was backed by pro-diversity organizations and labor unions.

Robert J. Smith, a lawyer-lobbyist with the firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Washington, said that the OFCCP Coalition for Reform-the contractors' group that he advises-doesn't quarrel with the office's need to compile statistics that ensure that federal contractors adhere to equal-employment practices. Instead, Smith said, the coalition wants to reduce what it considers duplicative paperwork.

"We're hoping to work with the department to assist it in coming up with realistic templates and measures," Smith said.

The efforts to streamline data-collecting by federal contractors is "definitely" on the Labor Department's radar screen, said Deron Zeppelin, director of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"It's not moving as fast as a hare, but it might be moving a little faster than a tortoise," Zeppelin said.

Among the issues the coalition is targeting is the Equal Opportunity Survey, a questionnaire that asks contractors to supply detailed statistical information about employee compensation patterns. Smith argues that the survey requests information in a way that is "effectively meaningless. At the end of the day, you can't parse anything from the data they're seeking."

It takes companies an average of 20 hours to complete the survey, but since one survey is required for each company facility, bigger contractors can spend hundreds or even thousands of hours filling out the surveys.

The coalition also opposes the way OFCCP analyzes compensation patterns. Currently, the job classifications that are used to determine patterns of pay can include wide variations in job types, Smith said. The coalition favors relying on long-established job classifications.

"We're asking the department to refrain from sending out any more forms until the survey's vitality can be established," Smith said.

Such views are opposed by a broad range of women's groups, civil rights organizations and labor unions, including the National Partnership for Women and Families, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"We strongly support the survey," said Jocelyn Frye, director of legal and public policy with the National Partnership for Women and Families. "The survey was the result of years of outreach from different groups on both sides of the issue. There were at least three opportunities for comment. It was a very important and solid compromise that tried to reflect and balance a lot of competing interests."

The coalition's other main concern involves the definition of the term "applicant." Federal contractors are supposed to keep records of the demographic breakdown of job applicants and then forward that information to the Labor Department. The idea is to ensure that contractors seek their employees from a diverse labor pool.

But ever since the advent of e-mail and job-search Web sites, companies have become deluged with inquiries about job openings, many from people who have little intention of seriously pursuing a job. The coalition argues that keeping track of all such inquiries-and securing demographic information from each applicant-is pointless.

"These mandates come irrespective of whether the company is actually looking for individuals to hire, and irrespective of whether the individual meets the basic qualification for any job that's available-much less the one they are applying for," Smith said.

Instead, the coalition urges that the department require companies to track applicants only when the company is known to be statistically under-employing minorities or women. And in those cases, the coalition suggests, companies should only be required to track application patterns when positions are open, and only for applicants who meet minimum job qualifications.

The current requirements "make the agency look foolish, and don't benefit the whole affirmative-action compliance process," Smith said. "We're trying to help the agency rationalize its procedures."

Feminist, minority and union groups "would not object to reasonable limits" on the term "applicant," Frye said. But, she added, she and her allies want to ensure that the new limits aren't so "amorphous" that they defeat the purpose of data-collecting. " 'Qualified' is an ambiguous term-there's a lot of litigation surrounding it," she said. "So if it gets to that level, we'd be real concerned."

Moreover, Frye said, companies should first try to harness Internet technologies themselves to handle the flood of information more effectively.

Under the Bush administration, the OFCCP has not been enforcing the broader definition of "applicant" to the same degree the Clinton administration did, Zeppelin said. But as of yet, it hasn't scrapped the policy either, he said.

The issue of defining the term "applicant" will get extra impetus because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also looking at the issue, Zeppelin said.

Smith declined to reveal the membership of his coalition, saying only that its members are approximately 10 trade associations.

National Journal Group Inc., the parent company of Government Executive, is among the companies classified as federal contractors that must comply with OFCCP regulations. It is not a member of the coalition.