Federal employees' rights infringed by inadequate EEOC complaint process

It's nice to have "rights," but only if they are enforceable. A recent General Accounting Office report casts doubt on the rights that federal employees have to prevent discrimination.

Federal employees are protected by laws against discrimination because of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability. If a federal employee believes his rights have not been honored, he can complain to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

EEOC regulations establish processing time requirements or standards for each stage of the complaint process. Under these regulations, federal agencies decide whether to dismiss or accept complaints and investigate those complaints that they decide have merit. After an agency investigation is completed, a complainant who is unhappy with the outcome can request a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge, who may issue a "recommended decision" that the agency is supposed to consider before making its final decision. An employee dissatisfied with a final agency decision or its decision to dismiss a complaint may file an appeal with the EEOC. Generally, feds must exhaust this administrative process before pursuing their complaints in court.

GAO has long held that the EEOC complaint process is inefficient, time-consuming and costly. GAO said, among other things, that the discrimination complaint process was burdened by a number of cases that were not legitimate discrimination complaints but rather were frivolous complaints or attempts by employees to get a third party's assistance in resolving work place disputes unrelated to discrimination.

This finding is supported by a 1996 internal EEOC report. At that time, the EEOC reported that "there may be a sizable number of disputes in the 1614 process [the name of the regulation governing the process] which may not involve discrimination issues at all. They reflect, rather, basic communications problems in the work place."

GAO found that complaints at agencies and the number of EEOC hearings and appeals are on the rise. At agencies, the number of unresolved complaints in inventory rose about 102 percent from 1991 to 1997.

At the EEOC during this period, the inventory of hearing requests increased 218 percent. As the size of the inventories grew, so did the average length of time that cases had been in inventory as well as the proportion of cases remaining in inventory longer than allowed by regulations.

In fiscal 1996 (the latest year for which detailed agency complaint data was available), about 49 percent of cases pending had been in inventory longer than the 180-day time limit— an increase from about 13 percent in fiscal 1991. The proportion of complaints accepted for investigation that were pending more than 180 days was about 59 percent larger in fiscal 1996 than in fiscal 1991. Regulations require that the EEOC issue a recommend-ed decision within 180 days of a request for a hearing.

GAO reported the implications of these trends: Inventories of cases pending will grow even larger in the future, particularly at the EEOC, and cases will take even longer to process.

The EEOC also projects that incoming hearing requests and appeals will continue to increase and has sought funding in its fiscal 1999 budget request for additional administrative judges to process hearing requests and attorneys to process appeals.

Even with these additional resources, however, the EEOC projects that by the end of 2002, its hearings inventory will grow to 15,950, with cases taking an average of 510 days to process, and its appeals inventory will grow to 18,953, with cases taking an average of 900 days to process.

Taxpayers and federal employees deserve better. Retiring employees are forced to wait intolerable lengths of time for their paperwork to be processed because President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore decided to "reinvent government" and eliminate essential personnel. It is not funny if you're waiting for a check and can't get it because there's no one to process it. It is also not funny if you're being discriminated against but there's no one to listen to and adjudicate your claim.

(Citation: GAO/GGD-98-157BR EEOC Complaint Caseloads.)

-- Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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