EEOC Set Up To Drown

Isaiah J. Poole

Celebrities spewing racist drivel get the headlines and the outrage, but largely out of the public eye the Bush administration has been doing something far more damaging to victims of discrimination than the utterance of a few vile slurs. In its classic Grover Norquist way, the Bush administration is shrinking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission so, as Norquist would say, it can be drowned in a bathtub.

People who feel they have lost a job or a promotion, or have experienced some other problem at their job, because of their race, sex, age or religion are supposed to be able to go to the EEOC to get a fair and expeditious hearing. The organization is used to operating under hostile administrations, but members of a House Appropriations subcommittee learned Tuesday that the Bush administration has taken the perennially struggling but feisty agency and turned it into one that is emaciated and in critical condition.

Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals at the American Federation of Government Employees/AFL-CIO, told the committee that “that civil rights enforcement in this country is being compromised due to: four years of level budgets at EEOC; a failure by EEOC’s administration to appropriately prioritize what funds are available for replenishing frontline staffing losses; and millions of dollars of critical funding wasted on a poor performing call center pilot.”

In an interview after the hearing, Martin told me that for the past four years under President Bush, the agency’s budget has been frozen at $322 million annually and it has during that period lost some 150 discrimination-case investigators, on top of other staff lost during a years-long hiring freeze. That loss has resulted in a 40,000-case backlog. Martin said that backlog could grow to 70,000 cases by the end of 2008. Financial settlements secured by the EEOC, which increased from $295 million in fiscal 2001 to $415 million in 2004, sank to $274 million in 2006.

The administration’s answer to reducing the backlog appears to be to discourage potential complainants from filing cases. The EEOC has in recent years transferred all of its citizen calls nationwide to a privately contracted call center with “up to” 36 employees. When someone calls to file a discrimination complaint, the call center operators, working from a script as if they were selling magazine subscriptions, are instructed to merely take the complainant’s name and address and mail the person a four-page form. Once the form is filled out and returned, the wait for a preliminary response could take weeks, and a final resolution could take years. The average case processing time has increased from 171 days to 193 days since 2005. The effect, Martin said, is that it makes often emotionally distraught people feel as if they are being put through a “bureaucratic quagmire.”

Often, people who file complaints “get tired of waiting and say, ‘Never mind,’” Martin said. The consequence is that “if we give people opportunities to bail out, there is a greater likelihood that discrimination will continue.”

The agency is facing these problems as Congress explores legislation that would expand the agency’s mandate to more vigorously go after discrimination against people with disabilities and discrimination based on genetics. The agency is also seeing a slight increase in the number of complaints it is receiving; that number had been dropping from 2003.

Despite often heroic efforts by many EEOC staff members, the agency’s performance ends up being the insult that adds to the injury of discrimination—an insult worse than a comedy club rant or a tasteless shock-jock routine. Martin asked Congress to end the continuing insult by boosting the agency’s funding so it can better handle cases. She is also seeking more oversight over the agency’s operations. In the meantime, the EEOC is yet another reminder of the price we pay for conservative disdain for government: bigotry left unchecked and wounds left unhealed. 

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