Meeting of September 17, 2004 to Vote on Authorization of Funds for Pilot National Contact Center
I voted to place the issue of the proposed obligation of funds for a two-year pilot of an EEOC call center on the agenda of the next public meeting of the Commission because of fundamental concerns I have about outsourcing essential government services that will have an impact on the basic civil rights of workers and victims of employment discrimination. Creating a private centralized call center staffed with low paid contract workers who will serve as a first screen to victims of employment discrimination will not help us serve charging parties and is strongly opposed by the civil rights community and many Members of Congress. I am also concerned that, if approved, this proposal is just the beginning of further changes cloaked, as this call center has been, in the language of improving efficiency that will weaken the EEOC's ability to perform its core mission of strongly enforcing employment discrimination laws through investigations and litigation. This is my first opportunity to engage my fellow Commissioners publicly on this topic because the initial vote occurred prior to my appointment as a Commissioner, and there has been no public forum since then.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the statute that created this agency and began our nation's efforts to rid workplaces of discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, and religion. It is ironic that in this anniversary year, the Commission is voting to remove the EEOC from its historic role as the first point of contact for those workers who have been illegally harassed, fired, shortchanged, or denied employment.
The civil rights protections for employment should be sacrosanct because employment is a fundamental step to so many other opportunities in our society. With a steady job, people have financial security that leads to the ability to purchase a home or a car or to move to a better home or neighborhood. It enables them to accumulate wealth and even has implications for having better health. Living in better neighborhoods and having better health allow people to learn about options in education for themselves and their children. And, people who become involved in their communities and workplaces increase the chances that they will become active citizens who will vote and engage in public policy issues.
Think about the 18-year old working at the fast food restaurant who has realized that her manager groping her, demanding her phone number, and making lewd comments to her is wrong. She has learned that there is an agency to help her. She finally gets up the courage to call the EEOC to complain. She expects she will be talking to someone from a government agency, created to protect her civil rights. Instead, she gets a contract employee with no specific interest in civil rights, maybe no older than she. In fact, the contract worker may have just chosen between working at a fast food restaurant or working at the call center. The call center employee will be working from a script. If the teenage worker fails to mention the precise key words to prompt the call center employee to give the correct advice, her charge could be lost. She deserves better.
I believe that contracting out this inherently governmental function is bad policy and against the spirit of Title VII which created this agency 40 years ago. The primary role of the EEOC is to be the front line enforcement agency against employment discrimination. One key function of the enforcement agency is to have trained personnel available to greet and meet with the public, both in person and using modern methods of communications such as the telephone and the computer. I believe in excellent customer service, and our offices should be staffed and equipped to provide it.
I know that EEOC employees understand the importance of Title VII and the other anti- discrimination statutes we enforce. Our dedicated colleagues at the EEOC are people who actively sought out a job here, and they are hired based, in part, on their commitment and dedication to the enforcement of civil rights. Many of our employees have chosen, at a financial sacrifice, to make working at EEOC their career, and the turnover rate at the agency is quite low. The turnover rate of EEOC employees was less than 2 percent in the last year (http://www.opm.gov/feddata/html/2004/january/table2.asp); the average call center has a turnover rate of 25 to 30 percent a year. It is the commitment and ability of our employees that makes this agency uniquely qualified to be the first place to which workers who are discriminated against turn. And no one here should be under the illusion that the workers answering the calls at the call center will have civil rights experience. In fact, we have decided to save money on this contract by not requiring such experience. EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Question 14 ("Question: How much does requiring this more specialized background [civil rights background] for contact center agents drive up the price tag? Answer: The EEOC solicitation for bids on the National Contact Center does not require hiring of customer service representatives with specialized EEO experience. Therefore, there is no added expense.")
I have serious doubts whether a private call center will be able to match the quality of the workforce at the EEOC. From my own, informal, survey of help wanted notices for Customer Service Representatives at call centers, it appears that entry level personnel in most of the United States are paid between $9-11 per hour, with or without benefits. This is the equivalent of the lowest pay levels of the General Schedule that the Federal Government pays its civil servants. Like the pay, the qualifications to be a Customer Service Representative are usually minimal. A candidate generally needs to be a high school graduate with some work experience and "good people skills." Statistics show us that not many people will make a career of being a Customer Service Representative at a private call center.
A number of representatives of private corporations have shared with me their experiences with call centers. They have told me that call centers can be an effective tool if you hire well qualified Customer Service Representatives and pay them accordingly. Hiring people with minimal qualifications and paying them not much more than the minimum wage appears to be a recipe for disaster.
Answering unsolicited phone inquiries at the EEOC is not all routine work that can be easily sent out to lower paid employees with good call center skills. Almost every person who has an employment discrimination charge has a different story with different facts. When they are telling their story, we must have people who are experienced and trained to develop what may seem like unimportant details to the person reporting the discrimination. They should be heard by a person with a commitment to enforcing laws prohibiting employment discrimination.
An EEOC employee answering the phones has the additional resource that contract call center workers will not have. The EEOC has an office of people who are right there who can help answer a question. A transferred call cannot replace having a person knock on a co-workers door and saying "Do you have a minute? I need help with a caller."
Because of the important work that we do at the EEOC, it is imperative that we invest in the agency and in our own workers. If we see that there are problems with our phone technology or uneven quality in the way phones are answered, we should provide our employees with better technology and training. Approving the proposal to have a national call center is a vote that I believe will be interpreted as the Commission saying our employees are not capable of providing the highest quality service, even if given the right tools. I do not believe that. I believe in the abilities of our employees.
My concerns are exacerbated because there have been shifting explanations about what the call center will and will not do. In the agency's written response to follow up questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, it clearly states that call center employees "will not make jurisdictional determinations or turn away potential charging parties." EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Question 27 (emphasis in the original). However, a review of the electronic assessment tool that call center employees are expected to use shows that the wrong answer to several difficult legal questions (how many employees does the employer have, when was the last act of discrimination) gives a message that the EEOC probably cannot help, although the person can contact a local office with questions. These are the types of questions that lawyers and judges often have difficultly answering correctly.
A call center worker relying on this tool will not tell a person that they cannot file a charge, but, obviously, the call center worker may be discouraging a valid claim. These are the situations in which an experienced EEOC employee, surrounded by other employees whom she may use as resources, could make all the difference.
Even if the person calling the EEOC is not discouraged, she has now spent a significant amount of time on the phone talking with a person she will have assumed is an EEOC employee who could help her. She will then be told that she will be transferred to a completely different person in a completely different office (and, if the complete truth were told, who works for a completely different employer) or that this person will contact her. We do not know how many people this two step process will frustrate and how many valid charges we will lose.
It may surprise people, given the scope of this call center project, to discover that the majority of EEOC offices do not have problems responding to unsolicited calls. Three-fourths of our district directors believe that calls from the public are adequately handled by their own staffs. Transcript of Remarks by John P. Rowe, Chicago District Director, Meeting on Repositioning for New Realities, Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness, September 8, 2003 (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings /9-8-03/transcript.html.) Any lack of responsiveness to unsolicited calls can be traced directly to two causes: 1) lack of adequate phone services and 2) lack of staff. These situations have been exacerbated by the Chair's decision to freeze hiring for over two years and spend money and staff resources on evaluating and developing a proposal for the call center.
Of course, there are some routine calls our employees answer such as questions about our hours, locations, and the laws we enforce that could be answered by modern telephone technology or lower level EEOC personnel. What the call center will be taking over will be more than this, and doing so at a very high cost estimated between 2-3 million dollars annually. EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Question 12. There are other opportunities we forego by paying for a national call center. I believe that the money we are proposing to obligate for this project would be better used by investing in our own employees and exploring alternatives to the call center.
It does not appear that alternatives to an outsourced call center were ever seriously considered. The lack of analysis of the cost of an in-house contact center is most troubling, with a quote of $12 million being used with little support or analysis. EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Questions 12 and 15. One might even conclude that the hundreds of thousands of dollars in both money and staff resources that we spent on technical panels to consider how to improve the EEOC's response to unsolicited calls was a foregone conclusion. See also Follow-Up Comments of Regional Attorneys, October 1, 2003 ("It appears, however, that, for whatever reason, the National Contact Center Work Group ("Work Group") limited its research and consideration to one and only one potential solution: a National Contact Center." (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings/ 9-8-03/ra_memo.html)).
Just how pre-determined the decision to propose a call center was is evidenced by the development of training material in anticipation of needing to train contract call center workers. EEOC employees spent months writing scripts and putting together a training manual aimed at contract call center workers. We now have started training our own employees using this material. What does this say about the commitment to this agency and to our own workers that we did not already have training materials, nor did we think it worthwhile until now to develop such material?
Given our budget constraints, one of the easiest solutions to problems with phone service is to update phone services and increase staff and training in the offices that need it or to lease the necessary services. We have estimated in our budget projections that the call center will cost $1 million in FY 2005 and an estimated $2-$3 million annually for FY 2006 and future years. EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Question 12. That seems like a large sum of money to invest in workers who in all likelihood will have little longevity as call center workers and will not be committed to our mission. Remarkably, given our constant budget woes, the call center is not being marketed as, nor ever had as its goal, saving the agency money. Transcript of Remarks by Cynthia Pierre, National Contact Center Working Group, Meeting on Repositioning for New Realities, Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness, September 8, 2003 ("We weren't focused on how much money could we save from this process, but how we could increase the efficiency of the Agency, increase our customer access. Be more customer focused. Be more professional, more responsive to the public and so forth. And it may be for the same amount of dollars. It may not be for a significant savings, but we would get a lot more bang for the buck." (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/ abouteeoc/meetings/9-8-03/transcript.html#cynthiapierre)).
In addition, we really do not know how much the call center will finally cost. In our written responses to follow up questions from the House Subcommittee, we state that once the contact center is operable, the contractor will be paid by the call. EEOC's Written Response to Follow Up Questions from the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary, April 27, 2004, Answer to Representative Serrano's Question 2. The EEOC's workgroup on the call center estimated call volume based solely on a one month survey of EEOC offices. While we can use one month of calls to try to predict volume, we have no way of knowing how accurately that month represents our true call volume, and, thus, we really do not know how muchthe contact center will end up draining from the agency's already limited resources.
This proposal is being marketed as a "pilot program," but it will involve all 51 of our offices for the next two years. That is not a "pilot." It is restructuring by another name. Ironically, the agency has been conducting true "pilot" contact center programs for years at each of our field offices. They each have figured out how to respond to unsolicited calls. We know that many of our offices successfully meet this challenge and have continued to do so even as their staffs dwindle and resources are consumed by employees spending hours on restructuring working groups that are tasked with justifying previously made policy determinations that do not help the agency perform its mission. If we want to change our operations based on a "pilot" program, we should first look to those successful field offices and try to replicate their solutions in other offices. If we believe that the public is not being given uniform responses, we should give our field offices scripts to follow. But, it appears that the resources for those scripts only exist when they are to be used by non-EEOC employees.
We also did not include in our solicitation for a contractor to operate the call center (published on March 9, 2004 in FedBizOpps) requests for upgraded phone services for existing offices. Even if the call center proposal is approved, these upgrades will be necessary because it would be unprofessional and unacceptable to have callers obtain better service from a contracted call service than from an actual EEOC office. Moreover, regional offices will be the experts that resolve what the contract workers at the call center cannot and take calls transferred by the call center.
The call center plan has had a profound negative effect on our relations with Congress which is, rightly, concerned about our efforts to outsource the civil rights protections with which they have entrusted us. Over 100 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter led by Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones, dated June 8, 2004, urging that our request to use funds for the call center be rejected. Several Senators, including Senators Kennedy and Senator Sarbanes, oppose our move to a national call center and further restructuring efforts suggested by the National Academy of Public Administration. According to the July 2, 2004 letter we received from 28 Senators led by Senator Kennedy "[h]andling sensitive calls and providing advice to the public about potential violations of our nation's laws protecting against employment discrimination is precisely the sort of inherently governmental function unsuitable for contracting out."
Similarly, civil rights advocates, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 9 to 5, and the National Employment Lawyers Association, have opposed contracting out an EEOC national call center. LCCR's comments specifically oppose allowing contact center employees to do any part of intake because call center employees' lack of knowledge and inexperience may lead to viable claims being lost or discouraged. Remarks of Wade Henderson, Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Meeting on Repositioning for New Realities, Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness, September 8, 2003 (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings/9-8-03/lccr.html). NELA, rightly, questioned the need for a call center and urged us to staff any such center with EEOC employees. Remarks of L. Steven Platt, National Employment Lawyers Association, Meeting on Repositioning for New Realities, Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness, September 8, 2003 (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings/9-8-03/nela.html).
Finally, it is clear that our own employees do not support this change. As I noted previously, seventy-five percent of District Directors believe their offices handle calls from the public appropriately. Regional Attorneys have urged us to spend money on the factors we know will improve service to charging parties, such as fully staffed offices. Follow Up-Remarks Submitted by Regional Attorneys, October 1, 2003 (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings/9-8-03/ra_memo.html). The federal employees union, American Federation of Government Employees, has been clear that it does not support this change. The internal opposition to this program is so obvious that the EEOC included this fact in its statement soliciting contractors.
The fact that civil rights supporters on Capitol Hill, in non-profit organizations, and in our own agency oppose this proposal belies the claim that the call center will somehow benefit charging parties. If the contact center were truly going to improve our services to workers who need them, these would be the exact groups supporting it.
As the Chair has stated several times, the call center is just the first step in a grander restructuring program, the parameters of which we still do not know. Because this "first step" lacks the support of all of our major constituents, it is unthinkable to continue with it. As further steps are planed, it is essential that the methods used to create the call center not be replicated.
First, we must involve employees at all steps. As the District Directors pointed out in their statement at the September 8, 2003 public meeting of the Commission, it is simply not enough to call for people's input before the topic of discussion is clear or after the decisions have been made. Comments of EEOC District Directors, Meeting on Repositioning for New Realities, Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness, September 8, 2003 (available at http://www.eeoc.gov/abouteeoc/meetings/9-8-03/eeocdd.html).
Second, we must listen to all the experts in the area, including our own employees. I recognize that the agency can be improved, and I believe we can learn from other agencies and the private sector. Among our employees are committed front line civil servants who have dedicated their careers to furthering civil rights. We would do well to give serious consideration to their advice and suggestions.
Third, we must employ an open process. Despite the assertion that there is not much left to say or do that has not already been said and done openly and publicly, there has been little open or public about this process. The one Commission meeting addressing the call center was actually on the combined topics of the National Academy of Public Administration report, the contact center working group report, and the Inspector General's report on teleworking The Commission did not hold a public meeting and had no public discussion on its vote to approve the recommendations of the contact center working group. The issuance of the Request for Proposals was met with hostility and criticism from Congress. We would not have held this meeting if I had not asked for it. The issues around the proposed restructuring of this agency are too important to be done behind closed doors.
It is not hard to see that the combination of creating the call center, closing field offices, using the internet to fill in charge assessment forms, hiring EEOC employees for term positions, and demanding that employees telecommute regularly will move us closer to an agency that has only a virtual, insubstantial presence in the communities we are bound to serve. The willingness to abandon civil rights enforcement to a computer terminal and a faceless call center is the wrong way to celebrate Title VII's anniversary and one that will cause us to be less efficient, less capable, and less able to enforce the laws we purport to defend.
People's jobs are far more than a source of income. They are often a source of pride and self-esteem, of friendship, and of personal growth. Those of us who have jobs spend more and more time in the workplace every year, and those who are searching for employment do so desperately. All too often, the door to a job or to advancement is closed because of discrimination, or a workplace is made intolerable because of harassment. Because a person's job is so critical to her life, we have a responsibility to ensure that the initial contact and counseling for employment civil rights protections are not transferred from the federal government to an anonymous call center staffed by employees selected for their telephone skills and not their passion for civil rights.
I urge my colleagues to vote against obligating funds for an EEOC call center.
This page was last modified on September 20, 2004.
Return to Home Page