Daily Labor Report
On a 3-2 vote, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission July 13 agreed to extend for another year a pilot project funding an outsourced call center to handle most of the agency's routine telephone inquiries.
But all five members of the commission also expressed concerns about shortcomings at the Lawrence, Kan., call center, which has been operated by Pearson Government Solutions under a $4.9 million contract since March 2005 (54 DLR A-3, 3/22/05).
EEOC Chair Cari Dominguez acknowledged that the project is an evolving one that "has had its share of start-up problems," but she assured members of the commission that she will initiate a series of actions to improve its operation during the next year.
"Another year will provide the time to ensure that the center is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible," Dominguez said, after the commission approved the $2.5 million contract extension.
However, Vice Chair Naomi Earp, a Republican who voted against the proposal, said the shortcomings of the program were too significant to extend the contract. "I'm committed to some type of call center," she said, "but I think it's time to push the pause button." The current program "is not working out as we expected and hoped," she added.
Senate Appropriators Say 'No.'
Meanwhile, hours after the commission vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee July 13 approved a spending measure that included language introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the ranking minority member on the subcommittee with authority over EEOC spending, that would eliminate funding for the call center, restore funding to the agency to its 2006 funding level of $327 million, restore the commission's district office in Baltimore from its downgraded status as an area office, and put other restrictions on EEOC spending.
The bill also provides that the commission "may take no action to implement any workforce repositioning, restructuring, or reorganization until such time as the Senate Committee on Appropriations has been notified of such proposals."
The provisions were incorporated in the fiscal 2007 State, Justice, and Commerce appropriations bill, which covers EEOC.
The bill now moves to the Senate floor, where a vote has not yet been scheduled. Following that action, the Senate appropriations measure must be resolved with the House bill which was passed in June (127 DLR A-10, 7/3/06).
The House spending bill (H.R. 5672) cut EEOC's annual budget for salaries and expenses by $4.1 million to $322.8 million for FY 2007, as requested by the Bush administration, but would not eliminate the call center.
Gabrielle Martin, the head of the union representing EEOC attorneys, lauded the Senate action. "We are a small agency, but we do important work," she said. "Sen. Mikulski has succeeded in averting a crisis that would have endangered the rights of workers around the country."
Inspector General Report Cites Problems
In addressing the call center, an outside evaluation authorized by EEOC's inspector general's office reported significant problems with the pilot program, that the calls handled by the contract employees "often contained inaccuracies," and that those employees "did not understand their role, " Inspector General Aletha Brown told the commission.
The call center "has the potential to make a significant contribution to the EEOC; however, as presently operated, it is not effective," the inspector general's report said.
The report noted that "customer satisfaction ratings" on the center, collected by EEOC in another outside study "found the call center rated above average compared to other federal agencies and service industries in the private sector." But the report added that operations could be improved. Customer service representatives "handle calls on a consistent basis, but need more training in soft skills and accurately and consistently handling unique inquiries," the report said.
Dominguez endorsed many of the report's recommendations for improving the call center operation, including a move to route all initial calls to the center; the development of a uniform and standardized intake procedure for handling discrimination charges; integrated technology between the call center and EEOC offices; and continued internal monitoring.
At the direction of congressional appropriators, the commission also will direct the National Association of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct a cost-benefit analysis as part of an external evaluation of the program.
Part of Restructuring Recommendations
The call center, launched agencywide in March 2005, was one of a series of recommendations NAPA made in 2003 for restructuring the agency.
Commissioners approved the call center proposal in September 2004 on a 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, the sole Democrat on the panel at the time, dissenting. The union representing EEOC employees, Capitol Hill Democrats, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of major civil rights organizations, also expressed qualms about delegating federal government functions to an outside contractor.
The agency's employee union, the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, American Federation of Government Employees, has continued its opposition to the call center and has urged the agency not to renew the contract.
Ishimaru also reasserted his qualms about the call center at the July 13 meeting, where he joined Earp in voting against extending the program. The $2.5 million contract extension "is a lot of money for an agency without much to spare," he said. "I have serious concerns whether this is the course EEOC should be taking."
Commissioners Leslie Silverman, a Republican, and Christine Griffin, a Democrat, voted to support the extension, but both also urged caution. "It would be fiscally irresponsible" to end the program now, Griffin said. "We need to make a final attempt, but we have to monitor this project closely."
Although EEOC initially predicted that the call center would be handling up to a million calls annually, the number actually was less than half of that during the first full year of operation. A large number of the agency's field offices continued to handle initial inquiries directly or referred calls to the center only after hours. Following the recommendations of the inspector general's report, one of EEOC's goals over the next year will be to route all unsolicited calls to the center.
Copies of the inspector general's report and a second, outside report on customer satisfaction will be posted on EEOC's Web site athttp://www.eeoc.gov.