EEOC awards $4.9 million contract for customer service center

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday revealed the identity of the contractor selected to set up and operate a national customer service center on a two-year trial basis.

EEOC officials awarded the $4.9 million contract to Pearson Government Solutions, an Arlington, Va.-based company. If the center works out, agency officials could extend the agreement for up to three more years.

EEOC officials selected Pearson from among 25 companies that responded to a March 8, 2004, request for proposals because Pearson is "ideally equipped" to help open new lines of communication, said Cari Dominguez, chairwoman of the commission, in a press release announcing the decision. Agency officials intend for the contact center to serve as a clearinghouse for general inquiries currently handled at field offices.

Under the proposal submitted by Pearson, the customer service center will be located in Lawrence, Kan., and will provide automated service 24 hours a day. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, callers will have the option of choosing an automated system capable of answering frequently asked questions, or speaking with a live representative. The center also will respond to e-mail inquiries, and has the capability of answering questions in as many as 150 languages.

"Individuals requiring assistance beyond general information will be referred to appropriate EEOC staff for counseling, guidance and action," the EEOC contract award announcement stated. "Additionally, the establishment of a national contact center will allow EEOC staff at headquarters and 51 field locations to focus more on responsibilities relating to charge intake, investigations, mediation, litigation and outreach to employers and employees."

But opponents of the plan expressed a variety of concerns about the customer service center.

EEOC has yet to receive a final fiscal 2005 appropriations package. But in initial versions of spending bills, both the House and Senate granted the agency far below the requested level of funding. The House version would grant EEOC nearly $335 million in fiscal 2005, more than $15 million below the request of roughly $350 million, and Senate appropriators allotted $327.5 million, $23.2 million below the request.

At those funding levels, EEOC could be forced to divert money needed to develop training programs and hire adequate investigative support staff for field offices to the customer service center, said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees.

But when asked about funding for the center, an EEOC spokeswoman told Government Executive that the agency has "available funding for fiscal year 2004" and has "requested adequate funding in fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006."

Martin also expressed concern about the choice of a contractor. Pearson is a "horrible" choice, she said, pointing to alleged issues the company has encountered in operating a call center for Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Homeland Security Department.

A survey conducted by the American Immigration Lawyers Association last year indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the CIS call center, intended to field questions about immigration benefits and applications. Of 515 respondents to the questionnaire, 79 percent indicated dissatisfaction with the center. More than 60 percent gave the toll-free number an overall rating of 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 indicated the highest level of satisfaction.

Survey respondents were particularly dissatisfied with the lack of "meaningful assistance" provided by call center employees. More than 60 percent said that a call to the toll-free number had not resulted in any useful information.

"In many instances, the only thing an operator could tell a caller to do was to write a letter to the service center, an effort long recognized as an exercise in futility, as such correspondence is rarely addressed in a timely manner, if at all," a summary of the survey results stated.

But David Hakensen, a spokesman for Pearson, pointed to flaws in the survey methodology. The questionnaire results didn't reflect the views of a large, representative sampling of call center users, he said.

In addition, Pearson encountered some initial problems with the CIS call center because the agency wouldn't allow contract employees to answer "certain higher level questions," he said. The center employees could only field basic inquiries and were required to send the others along to agency employees, prompting some of the criticisms, he said, adding that CIS and Pearson later resolved those issues.

Cynthia Pierre, head of a working group convened to consider service center options, said that the agency considered Pearson's experiences with the CIS call center, and concluded that a lot of the problems "were not the fault of Pearson, but of the government agency's decision not to provide the contractor access to its internal databases."

Those problems will not arise at EEOC, both Pierre and Hakensen said. Hakensen noted that Pearson operates a number of government call centers, and always works closely with agency officials to ensure that center employees are well-trained.

Three of EEOC's four commissioners voted last week to accept Pearson's proposal. Stuart Ishimaru, the newest member, cast the lone dissenting vote. Agency officials did not unveil the identity of the chosen contractor until Tuesday.

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.

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