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EEOC braces for bumpy transition to in-house call center

As contract for privatized center runs out, agency warns of reduced service.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is expecting service delays as it brings its nationwide call center operations back in-house over the next several months. Last week, the commission voted down a contract extension for a call center currently being run by a private firm.

Designed to field discrimination claims and questions about EEOC programs and products, the National Contact Center opened in March 2005 amid controversy. Despite vehement union opposition, EEOC contracted out operation of the call center to Vangent Inc., formerly Pearson Government Solutions, under a $4.9 million two-year contract with three option years.

The American Federation of Government Employees, representing EEOC employees, fought the move, saying it amounted to a "direct conversion" -- sending work to the private sector without allowing federal employees to compete for their jobs. Federal regulations prohibit direct conversions unless agencies are granted a waiver by the Office of Management and Budget.

The commission authorized one option year on the contract but split 2-2 when voting in July on exercising a second year. Under commission rules, a tie vote results in a defeat of the measure. EEOC Chairwoman Naomi Earp requested a six-month extension in order to smooth the transition back to using federal employees to staff the call center, but the commission approved only a three-month period. A last-ditch effort to extend the contract an additional three months failed last week, and the contractor-operated center will close Dec. 19.

Consultants hired to advise EEOC had recommended the most recent three-month extension in order to hire and train 64 agency employees, as well as to obtain the technology necessary to handle the roughly 65,000 calls the agency receives each month. But the commission remained deadlocked, with Earp and EEOC Vice Chairwoman Leslie Silverman voting to continue with the outsourced call center and Commissioners Stuart Ishimaru and Christine Griffin voting against it.

EEOC is warning the public that the full call-center transition will take some time and callers may experience slow responses after Dec. 19, when calls will be routed to EEOC field offices.

The contract extension's defeat "will likely result in disrupted service to the public," Earp said. "Creating an in-house system and making a seamless transition is a complex and time-consuming process. We continue working as quickly as we can to put a new system in place. But we ask the public to be patient when contacting the EEOC during this transition period."

Cynthia Pierre, EEOC's director of field management programs, told the commissioners before their vote that field office directors and supervisors had expressed concern that fielding calls may pose an excessive burden on already strained staff. According to Pierre, field directors believe that handling phones will come at the cost of achieving other operational goals, especially since the call center's closing comes near major holidays, when many employees have vacation time already scheduled.