EEOC reports record rise in bias complaints, progress in trimming backlog

Agency says it collected the highest level of monetary relief obtained through the administrative process.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday reported that private sector job discrimination complaints rose to an unprecedented level of nearly 100,000 in fiscal 2010, an increase of 6,715 over the previous year, while the agency documented clear progress in reducing a backlog of unprocessed charges.

Through its programs in enforcement, mediation and litigation over complaints of bias -- based on race, gender, disability, religion and retaliation -- EEOC in 2010 secured more than $404 million in benefits for victims from employers. That is the highest level of monetary relief ever obtained by the commission through the administrative process, the report said.

"We are pleased to see that our rebuilding efforts are having an impact on how efficiently and effectively the commission enforces the civil rights laws protecting the nation's workers," said EEOC Chairwoman Jacqueline A. Berrien. "Discrimination continues to be a substantial problem for too many job seekers and workers, and we must continue to build our capacity to enforce the laws that ensure that workplaces are free of unlawful bias."

Comparing its progress over the previous year's output, EEOC said it ended 2010 with an increase of only 1 percent in its overall inventory of pending charges, compared with an increase of 15.9 percent from fiscal 2008 to 2009. EEOC's mediation program achieved 10 percent more resolutions in 2010 than it did the previous year and resolved 400 more federal sector appeals than it did in 2009.

Analysts linked the rise in complaints to the recession. Retired Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom, who has written widely on race and poverty, said given that "a lot more people were laid off in 2009 and 2010, it's not surprising that some fraction somehow thought it was racially related."

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, said, "The number of complaints is not something the EEOC has direct control over. If you have a workforce that gets larger, as it is, and anti-discrimination statutes rising, as they are, and statutes are amended to allow for additional challenges, then the fact that there are more complaints doesn't say anything about the job EEOC is doing, or about the amount of discrimination in society."

Clegg's group has long complained that the EEOC and the Obama administration devote too many resources to cases based on the statistically "disparate impact" of hiring, firing and promotion policies instead of actual "disparate treatment" of individuals. "Under both the Obama and the Bush administrations," he said, "there's been a lot of disparate treatment aimed at nonminorities and men as corporations celebrate diversity, but the EEOC is not looking into it."

Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, noted that the EEOC's commissioners have been at full complement only since last spring, "so the fact that they had this tremendous level of charges in this fiscal year but did not increase the backlog says a lot." At the same time, she added, "There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done."

Even though many agencies are girding for possible hiring freezes and cutbacks, the EEOC said on its website that it is hiring investigators, mediators, attorneys, and administrative and clerical employees around the country, "adding positions frequently."