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National EEOC call center opens amid controversy

Critics say customer service center will lead to decrease in efficiency.

Bucking complaints from its employee union and some Democrats in Congress, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last week opened the phone lines at its first nationwide call center.

Staffed with employees of Arlington, Va.-based Pearson Government Solutions and located in Lawrence, Kan., the EEOC National Contact Center is taking calls related to discrimination claims and EEOC programs, products and services, which were once routed to EEOC district offices.

Last year, EEOC's employee union, a local of the American Federation of Government Employees, lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to forestall the center's creation, arguing that it would actually decrease efficiency because poorly trained workers would shuttle calls to local EEOC offices.

With the center, agency leaders say they have hit upon a means of improving service that has long been a source of citizen complaints. In the past, EEOC employees, such as receptionists, attorneys, investigators and even administrative judges, took calls in addition to performing their regular duties, said Cynthia Pierre, EEOC's director of field management programs.

EEOC had no staff dedicated solely to taking calls, and as a result, "There were a lot of calls that weren't getting answered," Pierre said. "People would wait for days for messages to be returned. The technology was pretty obsolete or inadequate…. It was taking away from time we need to spend investigating and litigating" discrimination cases.

In 2003, the National Academy of Public Administration, in a report prepared for the EEOC, recommended establishing a call center to help the agency improve customer service. EEOC followed up on the report with its own study, looking at the feasibility of opening a call center, and found that 61 percent of calls received at EEOC district offices were routine and didn't require the expertise of an attorney or investigator to answer.

An internal working group found that hiring about 100 additional EEOC employees and procuring expensive call center equipment would cost at least $18 million over two years, significantly more than the $4.9 million Pearson charged. Pearson won the contract last September after a competitive bidding process. The firm already works with five other government call centers, including the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid and the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

EEOC, charged with prosecuting discrimination cases on behalf of private sector workers and adjudicating discrimination claims by federal government employees, has pledged to evaluate the effectiveness of the call center staffed by Pearson during the next 18 months before deciding whether to continue using it. Calls will be monitored for quality, caller demographics and subject matter. Since February, the center has taken calls routed from the EEOC's Charlotte, N.C., San Francisco and Dallas offices in preparation for the center's opening to nationwide callers.

The center, open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, takes calls in 150 languages. If a person who speaks a language other than English or Spanish calls, a Pearson subcontractor, California-based Tele-Interpreters, will provide an interpreter. The call center is expected to receive as many as 1 million inquiries annually through two toll-free phone numbers, regular mail and electronic mail.

The numbers are 800-669-4000, and 800-669-6820 for citizens with hearing and speech impairments. During off-hours callers are routed to an automatic system that provides answers to frequently asked questions. The e-mail address is info@ask.eeoc.gov and the address is U.S. EEOC, P.O. Box 7033, Lawrence, Kansas 66044. Four of Pearson's 36 staffers are assigned to answering mail and e-mail inquiries.

Union officials and others remain wary. "We are paying this call center $4.9 million to take poor messages," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216. Laura Hinton, EEOC's outreach coordinator, said five days of classroom training in law and procedure provided to the Pearson customer service representatives is comparable to the amount of time spent in the classroom by new EEOC investigators.

The union's attempt to convince Congress to block the center failed, but many Democrats on Capitol Hill, led by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., wrote letters protesting the move.

Congress did not provide the EEOC with extra appropriations to fund the call center. Union leaders say the agency is funding the center by not filling open job slots. EEOC officials said they have found the funds by reducing management costs through attrition, and renegotiating lease agreements for some district offices. Last August, the agency trimmed $500,000 in annual costs by moving its Washington, D.C., field office into its headquarters facility.