New York Times

EDITORIAL; No Laughing Matter at the Office

April 3, 2009

It sounds like a grim sweatshop joke, but the federal agency that's supposed to enforce justice in the American workplace has been found in willful violation of its own workers' rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been blithely violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to an arbitrator who found that the agency has been forcing its employees to work overtime and not paying them for it. Instead, according to the arbitrator, the agency concocted a ''fiction'' that its workers ''requested'' only compensatory time instead.

The ruling is one more reminder of how the Bush administration gutted every regulatory agency it could get its hands on. The administration apparently saw no political advantage in doing something about helping workers who dared to complain about bias. On an immediate level, the arbitrator is presenting the Obama administration with another high-agenda item for its long list of government repairs.

The E.E.O.C. -- once a credible investigator of workplace grievances -- lost about a quarter of its staff across the Bush years. The commission shed investigators, lawyers and labor specialists -- even as it was increasingly swamped with complaints from workers in the private sector. In 2008, there were 95,400 allegations of job bias, a rise of 26 percent in just two years. Given the current economic agonies, the toll continues to rise.

President Obama touched on the E.E.O.C.'s problems in the campaign. Now that he is in the White House, he needs to repair, replenish and demand a major attitude change forthwith. And Congress needs to provide full support to restore the E.E.O.C. to something more than a laughingstock.