Probes Drag On Too Long, EEOC Says
By Darryl Fears
Federal agencies allowed worker complaints about discrimination and harassment
to languish well beyond the time allotted to process them, frustrating employees
and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, according to an annual report
on the federal workplace released yesterday by the U.S. Equal Employment
On average, the 356-page report for 2003 concluded, federal agencies take three
months longer than the 180 days they are given to investigate claims of sexual
harassment, racial bias, age discrimination and complaints of retaliation
"The average processing time, we think, is unacceptable," said Cari M.
Dominguez, the commission's chair. "Justice delayed is justice denied. We are
not moving these cases as quickly as we should."
Although the 13,248 worker complaints in 2003 were down 8 percent from the
previous year, only 5,307 investigations were completed within the 180 days
allowed. Agencies took an average of 267 days to finish the job.
Completing investigations is crucial because it is only the first step in a long
process. Cases often require mediation, hearings before an administrative
judge, appeals and reconsiderations.
"It's very lengthy, very costly and very cumbersome," Dominguez said. "It's not
uncommon to have a case sit for years going through all the various phases of
the complaint-processing system."
Worker complaints cost an average of $2,600 each to investigate, the study said.
Last year, processing complaints through all channels cost about $60 million.
Dominguez called the case backlog at agency offices "a chronic problem." She
said a few more egregious offenders -- the departments of Agriculture, Health
and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental
Protection Agency -- "are skewing the curve."
According to the report, the USDA took 778 days more than the allotted time to
process complaints; HUD, 559 days; the EPA, 491 days; and HHS, 329 days.
That compares badly with the average processing time of 160 days for employment
discrimination cases in the private sector, Dominguez said. Yet even the EEOC,
which she oversees, took 400 days more to investigate its own workers'
complaints than it should have.
"Our own agency," Dominguez said, a sigh in her voice. "Absolutely I share
[responsibility] in terms of the cases that I've inherited. I'm pleased to tell
you you're not going to see this next year."
Dominguez said private corporations faced with losing money in investigation
time and lawsuits made the complaint process a priority. She said she's
encouraged by the hiring of an undersecretary for civil rights at the
Agriculture Department and by the efforts of other departments.
The EEOC report seemed to partly validate charges from worker rights groups and
union representatives who have said federal managers consistently drag their
feet when investigating claims.
In March, an employee watchdog group called the No Fear Institute issued a
report card that gave the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Health and
Human Services failing grades for slow investigations and for failing to punish
managers even after they were proved to have discriminated.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, director of the institute, won a $300,000 federal court
judgment against the EPA in 2000. She claimed in a lawsuit that a manager called
her an "honorary white man" during a staff meeting and, later, said white
superiors thought she was "uppity." Coleman-Adebayo, a senior policy analyst at
EPA, is currently fighting the agency's effort to require her to commute to
downtown from her home in Bethesda, where she has worked for medical reasons.
In 2003, the federal government employed 2.4 million people on the mainland
and abroad. Of those workers, 67 percent were white, 19 percent were black, 7
percent were of Hispanic origin and 5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.
Minorities and women represent far smaller percentages of workers at the senior
pay level, some of the best jobs in government. Of the 15,000 senior pay
positions, 7 percent were held by African Americans, 3 percent by Hispanics, 2
percent by Asians and Pacific Islanders, and 26 percent by women , according to
the EEOC report.
Disputes over promotions drive up the number of complaints, workers have said.
Last year, the government paid awards of $40 million to employment
discrimination complainants, after the investigations, hearings and
reconsideration processes were exhausted. Appeals cost $20 million, the report