Meeting of July 18, 2012 – Public Input into the Development of EEOC's Strategic Enforcement Plan
I have been asked to address the potential benefits and challenges presented by development of enforcement priorities through the Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) on the smaller offices around the country. My office has the responsibility of processing charges of discrimination in the state of Arkansas. The Little Rock Area Office is a component of the Memphis District which encompasses Tennessee, Arkansas and the northern 17 counties of Mississippi. We have our District Office in Memphis and another Area Office in Nashville, Tennessee. Our District Director is Katharine W. Kores and our Regional Attorney is Faye A. Williams.
In Little Rock we currently have 10 investigators. We have lost staff due to transfers, retirement and military deployment. A total of 1,666 charges were filed in the state of Arkansas in FY 2011. We have been able to successfully manage our workload through the aggressive application of the priority charge handling procedures (PCHP). The application of PCHP begins with an extensive intake interview. We have early involvement from our legal unit in assessing the incoming charges to determine the proper categorization pursuant to PCHP. Our enforcement staff has frequent contact with legal staff in Little Rock and Memphis regarding charge processing. An important aspect of the Little Rock Area Office and the Memphis District is our very successful mediation program. A significant number of our charges are resolved early in the process through mediation.
The challenge as we go forward is how do we make the best use of our limited resources as we face an ever growing volume of charges of discrimination? As reflected in the Strategic Plan, we have fewer investigators than at any time in my 20 plus years with the Commission. How do we take priorities developed in Washington and make them meaningful and useful in Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville and the rest of the country?
Priorities established in Washington in general, broad strokes in a category such as Immigration Issues or providing services to underserved communities must be narrowed and refined as we apply them to the demographics of the states in our district. The offices around the country should provide extensive, ongoing input into how to address these concerns. We must be able to interpret the national priorities and apply them to the allocation of resources in the communities we serve.
Immigration issues in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi look very different from immigration issues in New York and Chicago. Our district contains a number of rural counties. Arkansas is home to the largest retailer in the world and also the world’s largest poultry producer. Most of the Employers in Arkansas are small businesses with less than 50 employees. There are unique aspects to each state that require a flexible approach from the standpoint of civil rights enforcement. For example, recently one of our colleagues from California commented on a New York Times article regarding the challenges faced by the large number of Marshall Islanders who now live and work in Northwest Arkansas. About 5,000 Marshallese have relocated in Northwest Arkansas to work in the poultry industry. We are aware of this population and have done outreach events to address their needs. I have met with their Consul General to discuss the challenges of relocating from islands in the Pacific to the Ozark Mountains. We must continue to evolve and advance in our approaches to the unique challenges that we face in the offices throughout the country.
The benefit of having nationally set enforcement priorities could come in the form of better coordination of our headquarters and field resources. Recently, we had a string of Human Trafficking charges. Our staff did not have any experience with these types of allegations. We were able to obtain assistance from other offices around the country. Nationally coordinated priorities could possibly lead to more readily accessible information and resources regarding the prioritized issues. It would be beneficial to our office to be able to communicate with individuals around the country who have developed expertise in areas that may be new to us. As we develop priorities we need to make resources related to these prioritized areas more easily accessible to all of our enforcement personnel. We need to continue to nurture and develop good, productive working relationships between Commission employees throughout the country.
We must take a reasonable, measured approach in prioritizing the processing of our charges. In addition to addressing specific priorities under the SEP, we will still have people walk in our office who have been subjected to graphic, egregious racial and sexual harassment. On the national level retaliation has passed race as the most common basis for filing a charge of discrimination. Race is still the most common basis used in filing a charge of discrimination in Arkansas. In FY 2011, 44.7% of the charges filed in Arkansas alleged race discrimination. The second most common basis for filing a charge in Arkansas was sex. In FY 2011, 30 % of the charges filed alleged sex discrimination. As we move forward, we will continue to have people who walk in the door because their employer has fired them after learning the worker was pregnant. We will continue to have people who are denied employment opportunities due to disabilities. We will continue to have people who lose their jobs because their employer refuses to provide a reasonable accommodation of their sincerely held religious beliefs. In order to achieve our mission of stopping and remedying employment discrimination, we must be able to devote our time and resources to addressing these allegations of blatant workplace discrimination in a timely effective manner.
Arkansas, like Mississippi, does not have a state civil rights agency. We have a small number of plaintiff’s attorneys who have expertise in employment discrimination. Frequently, we are the only hope for protection of individuals faced with workplace harassment. We must have flexibility to allocate our resources to address allegations of employment discrimination of all types.
Systemic cases are very important in furthering the Commission’s mandate to eradicate employment discrimination. We need to continue to develop better methods to share information and resources between our offices. The Office of General Counsel has championed the concept of looking at our attorneys throughout the country as a national law firm. We need to develop a comparable process in enforcement to more easily connect investigators in different offices who are working on similar cases that may lead to more extensive, broad based investigations.
Individual cases, particularly in less populated areas, can have a major impact on furthering our mission of eradicating employment discrimination. We have pursued cases that sought relief for a single person or a couple of people that obtained significant relief and received extensive, favorable coverage in the media. As a result, other victims of discrimination gained information about the laws enforced by the Commission and filed charges of discrimination. We have received national media coverage from individual cases filed in small communities.
As we adjust our enforcement priorities, there should be a symbiotic relationship between enforcement and legal. Strong, thorough investigations produce effective litigation vehicles. An aggressive litigation program encourages employers to modify their employment practices and policies. A solid litigation program helps educate employers on the value of early resolution of charges during the charge process through negotiated settlement, mediation and conciliation.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this meeting. I look forward to the discussion of this important topic.