The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of September 8, 2003, Washington D.C. on Repositioning for New Realities: Securing EEOC's Continued Effectiveness

Remarks of Wade Henderson, Executive Director
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Good afternoon. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today and offer comments on proposals before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regarding its structure and organization. I am Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a diverse coalition of more than 180 national organizations representing a broad constituency, including persons of color, women, children, labor unions, individuals with disabilities, older Americans, major religious groups, and gays and lesbians. LCCR and its members have a shared commitment to advancing equal opportunity in employment and ensuring that all Americans are treated fairly in the workplace. We believe deeply in the EEOC’s mission and the critical role it plays in investigating and challenging discriminatory employment practices. We are firmly committed to helping to ensure that the Commission thrives as a vital institution with the tools and resources it needs to accomplish its work in an effective manner.

I. Background and Overview

Today’s public meeting comes at a critical juncture in the life and history of the Commission. The EEOC faces many challenges, all of which have important implications for the structure and organization of the agency, the ability of claimants to access the Commission’s services, and the overall effectiveness of the agency’s enforcement work. We recognize that the Commission’s limited resources increasingly must be stretched to respond effectively to a wide mix of employment discrimination cases with varying levels of complexity. Even with significant progress over more than three decades, persistent discriminatory employment practices continue to limit job opportunities for women, people of color, older workers, people with disabilities, and other employees. The Commission must tackle not only visible practices, but also subtler forms of discrimination that, although hidden from plain view, continue to deny equal employment opportunity to far too many.

It is in this context that the Commission is now considering important questions about its structure and organizational design. Among the proposals under consideration are recommendations issued by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in February 2003 proposing significant structural and organizational changes, and detailed comments submitted by numerous stakeholders in response to the NAPA recommendations. This public meeting provides an important opportunity to put these comments and recommendations into the broader perspective of the Commission’s goals and objectives, and chart a direction for the agency that preserves and advances the agency’s essential mission to combat discriminatory employment practices. I would like to focus my remarks on several specific questions we understand are now under consideration, as well as some of the overarching principles that we believe should guide this discussion. Most importantly, we caution against implementing changes without comprehensive analysis of their potential impact, significant outreach to stakeholders, Congressional oversight, and full opportunity for formal public comment on specific proposals.

II. Establishing a Framework for Discussion - Guiding Principles for Considering EEOC Structural and Organizational Challenges

There are several key questions on the table for today’s public meeting: identifying improvements in EEOC service delivery that are cost effective and promote greater efficiency, evaluating the implications of changing demographics and population trends, strengthening the Commission’s discrimination prevention and overall enforcement efforts, enhancing the Commission’s technological capacity, and exploring how best to maximize the Commission’s limited resources. In addressing these questions, we believe that the Commission should be guided by several core principles. First, any decision about the structure or organization of the Commission must be consistent with the EEOC’s primary role - to enforce employment discrimination laws and help individuals vindicate their rights. We strongly believe that any changes to the EEOC’s structure or organization must not detract from these fundamental enforcement responsibilities. Second, it is essential to ensure that all potential claimants have equal access to EEOC’s services. Any changes embraced by the Commission must not impede the ability of claimants - particularly those with special barriers such as limited language proficiency, disabilities, or limited transportation options - to get the services they need. Third, it is critical to ensure public accountability as the Commission contemplates potential changes. Articulating a clear decisionmaking process that affords ample opportunity for public comment is a crucial part of garnering support for any actions the Commission pursues. Fourth, achieving high quality and high performance in all EEOC services and functions must be a top priority as organizational changes are evaluated. Fifth, the Commission must maintain a strong institutional presence in different communities throughout the country to maximize access to EEOC services. Finally, it always is important to focus on identifying new strategies to detect and remedy discrimination. With these principles in mind, we offer the following comments.

III. Improving the Delivery of Services by the EEOC

  1. Assessing the Needs of the Community. We believe that the discussion of potential improvements in the EEOC’s service delivery must start with a thorough assessment of the needs of local communities. To ensure that such an assessment is comprehensive and accurate, we urge the Commission to engage in a dialogue with community leaders and local groups in different regions of the country to identify unique challenges facing their communities. The Leadership Conference appreciates the opportunity we have had to discuss different issues with Commissioners and staff, and we urge you to continue these discussions with many different stakeholders. Such consultation is critical to making informed judgments about how best to serve claimants and communities. It is also important for members of local communities to hear from you directly and concretely about specific changes that are being contemplated in different areas of the country to minimize confusion and misinformation. We believe that this is an important threshold step that must take place before implementing significant changes.
  2. Ensuring Equal Access for all Claimants. One key priority in advancing the Commission’s work is to ensure that individuals understand their rights and have meaningful access to the Commission’s technical expertise and investigatory process. Operational or structural changes that make it harder for claimants to have their complaints investigated or resolved should not move forward. Further, any changes must take into account the unique challenges of serving different communities, such as communities where there are significant language barriers. It is with these concerns in mind that we have considered several specific proposals that we understand are under review by the Commission.
    1. The National Call Center. One proposal that has received a great deal of attention involves the creation of a “national call center.” Although the design has not been completely determined, the call center proposal likely would have all phone calls to the EEOC being routed to one central location where they would be handled by call center staff or referred to local offices. In prior comments to the Commission, we raised serious concerns about using a call center for the intake of claims. We believe that, while providing basic information about the EEOC might lend itself to a generic call center format, the more technical process of receiving and analyzing legal claims does not. One-on-one meetings often provide the best forum for the type of nuanced services required in employment discrimination claims; clients need time to fully explain their complaint and the intake person needs time to adequately assess the complaint. In contrast, call centers frequently operate with strict time limits, thus staff answering calls might not be able to delve fully into the intricacies of the complaint. We also raised concerns about replacing highly qualified personnel with a call center staffed by private contractors with limited expertise in complex employment discrimination issues. Thus, if claims intake is delegated exclusively to a call center, we are concerned that time pressures and insufficient technical expertise will lead to premature dismissals of complaints and discourage many potential claimants from filing valid charges. We understand that the call center proposal that the Commission may be considering currently recommends that the call center should not be used for claims intake. For the reasons outlined above, we agree with this recommendation and urge you to ensure that claims continue to be handled in the manner they are currently processed. Even with limiting the call center to providing general information, however, we have reservations about the logistical challenges involved with ensuring that each call is handled appropriately and potential claims are referred to the appropriate offices. Thus, rather than undertaking such a significant change at once, we recommend pursuing a pilot that is both time-limited and smaller in scope, perhaps involving one region of the country for better analysis.
    2. Reconfiguring or Closing Offices. Another issue that has received a great deal of attention is the potential closure or reconfiguration of EEOC offices. As a general matter, we support EEOC efforts to explore ways to decrease real estate costs, such as locating offices in lower-rent areas. In our prior comments, we voiced serious concerns about the potentially negative impact on claimants’ access to services if local offices are closed and/or services are significantly reduced. In particular, we opposed - and continue to oppose - the sizable office restructuring suggested in the NAPA recommendations. We believe that any significant reduction in staff and availability of offices would cause substantial harm to individuals seeking to have their claims heard fully and fairly. Moreover, eliminating offices, without ample study and public consultation, could send the wrong message to clients about the EEOC’s commitment to reach out to underserved communities and reverse much of the progress the EEOC has achieved in recent years. It is our understanding that the Commission may be examining how much of a presence it needs in the jurisdictions it currently serves, while evaluating reconfiguration of offices and potential redeployment of staff. To the extent that wholesale elimination of numerous offices are not contemplated, that is an important step forward. But reducing the capacity of individual offices, even if a nominal presence is maintained, ultimately could have the same effect on a particular community as shutting down an office in its entirety. Thus, we believe that there are several threshold steps the Commission must take before reaching conclusions about office reconfiguration. We urge you to articulate the criteria you will use to determine changes to the structure of EEOC offices, undertake a cost-benefit analysis that considers the financial and human consequences of potential changes, and develop a concrete plan to ensure that any changes are well-communicated to members of local communities. We also believe that public input on proposed changes is a crucial part of ensuring meaningful access to EEOC services.
    3. Teleworking. Another proposal we understand the Commission is examining involves shifting some complement of EEOC staff into “telework” arrangements. A teleworking structure would create a network of dispersed staff who work separately from home offices rather than working collaboratively in regional offices. The question of whether such arrangements will help or hinder access to EEOC services will depend, in large measure, on the scope of the program design. We believe, however, that any teleworking program must be piloted in order to fully evaluate whether it is a worthwhile alternative that continues to serve complainants in the best way possible.
  3. Training. One critical aspect of improving service delivery involves greater investments in training of EEOC staff. We are well aware that the Commission’s resources are already strained, but training is crucial to ensuring that EEOC personnel have the information they need to achieve the agency’s objectives. Further, comprehensive training helps to ensure that potential claimants receive accurate information about their rights and how to pursue claims. Most importantly, if structural or organizational changes are being contemplated, the Commission must include sufficient resources for comprehensive training to ensure that such changes are communicated clearly to all claimants and stakeholders, and implemented appropriately by staff.

IV. Responding to Changing Demographics

  1. Greater Investments in Outreach. Effective outreach is a critical part of ensuring that individuals can access the Commission’s services. Changing demographics and shifting population trends only heighten the need for outreach into local communities. People must be aware of where the Commission is and the resources it can provide, and must have confidence in its ability to respond effectively when they seek assistance in vindicating their rights. Any changes in how the Commission operates should expand and not diminish outreach activities, particularly in underserved communities.
  2. Increasing the Commission’s Capacity to Assist Diverse Communities. It is important that the Commission is well-positioned to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse communities it serves. Being mindful of its limited resources, we believe the Commission must identify ways to provide training - such as language classes - for staff so that they are better equipped to assist clients. Partnering with community groups to educate workers about their legal rights and employers about their legal obligations is another strategy for ensuring that the Commission is connected with potential claimants.

V. Improving the Technological Capacity of the EEOC

We are supportive of the EEOC’s general efforts to make technology upgrades. However, we do have a concern about one technology-related proposal - electronic filing. In our prior comments, we pointed out that enabling clients to file their claims electronically raises a number of legal and technical questions. First, all claims are supposed to be signed by the charging party. Thus, some provision would be required to comply with this rule. Second, attempting to condense the current claims filing process into a mechanized electronic format creates the very same hazards posed by the national call center. An electronic, automated process, without any guidance from trained personnel, risks jeopardizing the rights of claimants because it eliminates the “give-and-take” essential to ensuring that claimants understand their legal options. Asking clients to file claims electronically also assumes that they have access to and skill with using a computer, which cannot be presumed for all individuals interested in filing a claim. To the extent the Commission may be considering limiting electronic inquiries to general information and not claims processing, we believe that such an approach is more sensible.

VI. Conclusion

For over 50 years, the work of the LCCR has reflected our longstanding, unwavering commitment to ensuring equal employment opportunity and affirming equal justice principles. Our support for the EEOC and its mission is rooted firmly in this commitment and we believe that the EEOC has a vital role to play in widening the doors of employment opportunity for all Americans. We also understand the importance of ensuring efficiency in EEOC’s operations. We believe that the Commission’s efficiency goals, if pursued in a thoughtful, collaborative manner, need not undermine the rights of claimants or overall enforcement. We thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s public meeting and we look forward to working with you on these critical issues.

This page was last modified on September 9, 2003.

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