EEOC votes not to extend contract for customer service center

Commission split over possible contract extension, considers bringing operation in-house.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission voted last week not to extend a contract for a national customer service center, meaning the commission will have to find another way to handle general phone inquiries after the contract's Sept. 20 expiration.

The four-member commission split 2-2 in the July 26 vote, which by agency rules means the contract cannot be extended, said an agency official who declined to be named because negotiations are ongoing. The future of the program remains uncertain, although the official confirmed that the EEOC might bring the operation back in-house. Other options include a short-term extension of the contract.

EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, who voted against the customer service hub all three times it has been considered, said he is disappointed by the initiative's performance. "I was a consistent voice against having this, but I hoped it would work," he said. "Frankly, it hasn't. It makes more sense for EEOC employees to be doing this work."

Ishimaru added that the call center was established because EEOC offices lacked staff, not because they offered poor customer service.

At present, the hub -- called the National Contact Center -- employs 62 customer service representatives and handles an estimated half million phone calls annually at its Kansas location, said Eileen Cassidy Rivera, vice president of communications for Vangent, the company that took over Pearson Government Solutions and now runs the center. The customer service hub has handled over a million calls since it opened in February 2005 as a two-year pilot program. The center's establishment was the first stage of a three-part EEOC reform effort aimed at freeing field office staff for other tasks.

Lawmakers also are attempting to shape the fate of the center.

The House recently passed an appropriations bill that includes language aimed at shutting down the contract. The language also appears in a Senate version that has not yet passed.

The Bush administration responded with a statement that supports the service center, estimating it saves $3 million annually.

Union leaders, who have long opposed outsourcing the customer service work, hailed the commission vote and the congressional action.

"I'm pretty confident Congress understands the problem with the call center," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216. She pointed to a July 2007 survey by the union, in which 77 out of the 100 field officers who responded did not think the center improved customer service.

The most recent independent study by the EEOC's inspector general found that "managers and employees expected the [service center] would lighten workload for field offices far more than it actually [had]."

Both Rivera and the EOCC spokesman said the National Contact Center had been reformed in response to the IG report.

An EEOC spokesman said the agency has contingency plans in place should Congress pass the pending measure, but Ishimaru disagreed. "When you ask what we're going to do on Sept. 20, you don't get much of answer," he said. "Do you send the calls back to the offices directly? Do you parcel them out so they go to certain places and not others? All of those questions are important ones. No answer has been proffered."

The agency is currently short one commissioner. Martin noted that if that position is filled, the new commissioner could sway the vote.

Should the agency bring the work back in house, more staff would be needed to handle calls, Martin said. "[The EEOC] should be hiring," she said.