EEOC Set Up To Drown
Isaiah J. Poole
April 25, 2007

Celebrities spewing racist drivel get the headlines and the outrage, but largely out of the public
eye the Bush administration has been doing something far more damaging to
victims of discrimination than the utterance of a few vile slurs. In its
classicGrover Norquist way, the Bush administration is shrinking the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission so, as Norquist would say, it can be drowned
in a bathtub.

People who feel they have lost a job or a promotion, or have experienced some
other problem at their job, because of their race, sex, age or religion are
supposed to be able to go to the EEOC to get a fair and expeditious hearing.
The organization is used to operating under hostile administrations, but
members of a House Appropriations subcommittee learned Tuesday that the Bush
administration has taken the perennially struggling but feisty agency and
turned it into one that is emaciated and in critical condition.

Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals at the
American Federation of Government Employees/AFL-CIO, told the committee that
"that civil rights enforcement in this country is being compromised due to:
four years of level budgets at EEOC; a failure by EEOC's administration to
appropriately prioritize what funds are available for replenishing frontline
staffing losses; and millions of dollars of critical funding wasted on a poor
performing call center pilot."

In an interview after the hearing, Martin told me that for the past four years
under President Bush, the agency's budget has been frozen at $322 million
annually and it has during that period lost some 150 discrimination-case
investigators, on top of other staff lost during a years-long hiring freeze.
That loss has resulted in a 40,000-case backlog. Martin said that backlog could
grow to 70,000 cases by the end of 2008. Financial settlements secured by the
EEOC, which increased from $295 million in fiscal 2001 to $415 million in 2004,
sank to $274 million in 2006.

The administration's answer to reducing the backlog appears to be to
discourage potential complainants from filing cases. The EEOC has in recent
years transferred all of its citizen calls nationwide to a privately contracted
call center with "up to" 36 employees. When someone calls to file a
discrimination complaint, the call center operators, working from a script as
if they were selling magazine subscriptions, are instructed to merely take the
complainant's name and address and mail the person a four-page form. Once the
form is filled out and returned, the wait for a preliminary response could take
weeks, and a final resolution could take years. The average case processing
time has increased from 171 days to 193 days since 2005. The effect, Martin
said, is that it makes often emotionally distraught people feel as if they are
being put through a "bureaucratic quagmire."

Often, people who file complaints "get tired of waiting and say, 'Never
mind,'" Martin said. The consequence is that "if we give people opportunities
to bail out, there is a greater likelihood that discrimination will continue."
The agency is facing these problems as Congress explores legislation that
would expand the agency's mandate to more vigorously go after discrimination
against people with disabilities and discrimination based on genetics. The
agency is also seeing a slight increase in the number of complaints it is
receiving; that number had been dropping from 2003.

Despite often heroic efforts by many EEOC staff members, the agency's
performance ends up being the insult that adds to the injury of
discrimination-an insult worse than a comedy club rant or a tasteless
shock-jock routine. Martin asked Congress to end the continuing insult by
boosting the agency's funding so it can better handle cases. She is also
seeking more oversight over the agency's operations. In the meantime, the EEOC
is yet another reminder of the price we pay for conservative disdain for
government:bigotry left unchecked and wounds left unhealed.