EEOC Awards Contract for Complaint Center
(Washington Post 9/22/04)

By Amy Joyce

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission yesterday awarded a $4.9 million, two-year contract to Pearson Government Solutions Inc. of Arlington to field discrimination complaints from workers across the nation.

The plan calls for operators, based in Lawrence, Kan., to field calls from the public, answer their questions, or refer them to EEOC employees in field offices. The center, to begin taking calls in the spring, is part of a restructuring plan and is intended to ease the number of calls that go unanswered or are not answered for days, EEOC officials said. Some Democrats in Congress and the agency's union opposed the plan and said they thought private workers would lack the expertise to handle complaints. Union officials also expressed fear that jobs would be lost in the 51 agency field offices, which agency officials deny.

Pearson's proposal to run the call center was picked from 25 applications, the agency said. The company already runs five government call centers, according to its Web site, including ones for education, Medicare and immigration.

The pilot project will be run for Pearson by Elizabeth Thornton, who worked at the EEOC for 30 years before retiring in mid-2002. Thornton left the agency before the call center idea was initiated, Jennifer Kaplan, an EEOC spokeswoman, said.

A Pearson contract with the Transportation Security Administration program to recruit new security personnel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks met with controversy: Some members of Congress accused the company of greed as the bill for the TSA program shot up to $740 million, seven times the original amount.

Pearson spokesman David Hakensen said the increased cost was because TSA asked that more people be hired in a shorter amount of time.

The Department of Homeland Security concluded in February that TSA should have been more responsible for monitoring the contractor's work. The department's inspector general is still working on an audit of the contract.

In addition, the company still faces lawsuits from individuals accusing it of unfair hiring practices in the TSA program. "We believe they are unfounded," Hakensen said.

EEOC spokeswoman Kaplan said the TSA program had nothing to do with the new work the agency has hired Pearson to do. She said the agency "conducted a thorough level of review of all [applicants]. Pearson's record found no disqualifying factors. We were impressed by Pearson's emphasis on a diverse workforce."

The call center Pearson operates for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has been criticized by immigration lawyers who said some of their clients nearly lost their immigration status because of bad information provided by unqualified workers.

Hakensen said the company took over the call center in 2002 after a survey said callers were unhappy with wait times and other problems. Since then, Pearson has been "ramping up on a certain amount of information our operators didn't have access to."

  Crystal Williams, senior director of liaison and information at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the problems still haven't been fixed but blamed it more on the system than on Pearson.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.