Daily Labor Report
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
House Appropriators Express Qualms
About EEOC Funding, Future of Call Center
The chairman of a House appropriations panel expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's outsourced call center, as well as the administration's bid for lower funding, during a March 20 oversight hearing on the agency's fiscal year 2008 budget request.
The contractor-operated call center and the administration's request for a funding level of $327.7 million--or nearly a million less thanEEOC's current operating budget--were the primary focus of questions to Chair Naomi Earp during more than an hour and a half of questioning by members of the Appropriation Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.
Observing that both the inventory of pending discrimination charges and the time frame for processing those charges has increased over the past year, Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) questioned whether, in light of those negative trends, the funding request was an adequate one for the country's chief civil rights enforcement agencies.
Earp acknowledged that the commission has been continuously plagued by funding shortages. "We're an agency that for a very long time has learned to do what we can with what we've been given," Earp responded.
"We continue to look for efficiencies," she added later in the hearing. "We do the best we can with the appropriations we have."
But Mollohan appeared skeptical about the commission's ability to perform its mandates without additional funds. "You have some trends--rising backlog, longer times [for processing charges], fewer resolutions," he said. "You're probably doing a great job, with a terrible budget."
EEOChas been operating under essentially level funding for the past five years. Despite a reduced budget request from the administration last year, an additional appropriation incorporated in the current fiscal 2007 budget restored the budget to its previous level. "We were ecstatic" when the commission got the extra funding and was able to hire an additional 70 "front-line" employees, Earp told Mollohan.
TheEEOC chair declined to respond to Mollohan's query regarding the amount of funding that commission officials had initially asked the Office of Management and Budget to incorporate in its budget request, observing that she thought the information was confidential. When pushed by Mollohan, however, she assured him that she would consider his request.
Mollohan asked Earp what the biggest challenge was for the agency.
"Changing demographics coupled with the changing and more subtle nature of discrimination is our biggest challenge," Earp replied. "Despite continuing fiscal challenges, we're working to maintain our stature as the country's preeminent civil rights law enforcement agency."
Questions About Call Center
Mollohan also expressed concern over the continuation of EEOC's call center, currently operated by Pearson Government Solutions Inc., under the third year of a pilot project that will expire next summer.
The call center was launched to improve customer service by handling routine calls to the agency, but has been criticized byEEOC's union, the American Federation of Government Employees, by EEOC's inspector general in a report, and by some legislators.
Earp, who had expressed her own qualms about the center last year, told the committee that the situation has improved and that the call center, which handles about a half million telephone calls annually, is more effective and efficient than it was a year ago. "If you called today, you'd get a completely different level of service than you did a year ago," she told the committee. A January report by the National Academy for Public Administration found thatEEOC began "to aggressively address shortcomings" in the call center's implementation and called the progress "noteworthy."
The call center's centralized system has givenEEOC the opportunity for better monitoring of charges and has provided a standardized intake procedure, and also has freed up EEOC employees "to focus on investigation, mediation, and litigation," Earp said.
But the legislators expressed doubt about contracting out that job to non-government employees. "It's not the call center, it's the outsourcing that concerns me," said Mollohan, whose views were echoed by Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif).
Last year, at the initiation of two Democratic House members with previous ties toEEOC, the committee included language agreeing to fund the call center pilot program through September with the caveat that further evaluation be done by NAPA, an independent research organization that originally recommended the call center in a 2003 report on overall restructuring of the commission.
In a January 2007 report, NAPA recommended that the commission maintain the call center "for the time being until and unless a more detailed comprehensive cost analysis is conducted of alternative options."
The ultimate future of the call center, however, continues to remain uncertain.
Earp told the committee that she favors contracting out "from a cost-benefit perspective" and that she would vote to extend the contract "for a full five years," when it expires this summer. But she also acknowledged that at this point she does not have the support from fellow commissioners to extend the contract.
Mollohan indicated that his panel will be keeping an eye on the project as well. "There is a lot of interest in the call center," he said. "We'll be looking at it very closely this year."
Gabrielle Martin, anEEOC trial attorney who heads the commission's union, said that she was encouraged by the subcommittee's oversight.
"They've given us an opportunity to plead the case again," Martin told BNA from the commission's Denver office. "I'm optimistic that they'll be focusing on our concerns," which she said, include the need for extra staffing, as well as the replacing the outside call center with an operation handled byEEOC employees.
The 96-page NAPA report, "Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's National Contact Center," can be downloaded from the academy's Web site,http://www.napawash.org.