EEOC Resolves Hang Up on Call-Center Staffing

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A three-year controversy over who should answer telephone calls for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission appears to be at an end.

The EEOC has decided that calls from the nation's workers about job discrimination will be handled by an in-house team, replacing a contractor-operated call center.

Naomi C. Earp, the commission chairman, said the call center had freed up the agency's field staff to work on a growing caseload but noted that "we recognize the strong opposition" by "interested parties" who wanted calls from the public answered by federal employees.

The contractor-operated call center has drawn steady opposition from the American Federation of Government Employees and key members of Congress. House and Senate Appropriations committees have approved bills that would eliminate funding for the call center in fiscal 2008.

Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EEOC, had repeatedly faulted the call center. In a statement this month, she promised to work with the agency "to find a new model to fulfill the EEOC's mission of quality customer service while enforcing federal equal employment opportunity laws."

In deciding to bring telephone services back inside the agency, EEOC commissioners took steps aimed at ensuring an orderly transition. They voted to extend the contract for the call center, which expires Sept. 20, for three months, and to hire a consultant to help plan for the migration of work and prepare cost estimates.

The vote, taken in private Friday, was 4 to 0, an agency spokesman said yesterday.

Bringing the work back into the EEOC will probably mean that the agency, which has about 2,100 employees, will have to add staff members. The EEOC lost about 700 employees over the past five years, mainly because of attrition and hiring freezes. At the same time, the agency's workload has been increasing. The EEOC estimates that about 67,000 private-sector bias complaints will be pending by the end of fiscal 2008.

"We're very short-staffed," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the AFGE National Council of EEOC Locals.

Martin said that any hiring program should be accompanied by training for new employees on the major laws that the EEOC enforces and on how advise callers, she said.

The EEOC said the call center, based in Kansas, receives more than 70,000 calls and 3,000 e-mails each month. The center is run by Vangent, which also provides call centers for other federal agencies.

Appeals Court Turns Away Defense Unions

Unions battling the Pentagon have been handed a tough blow in their legal fight to block rules being imposed as part of a new personnel system for Defense Department civil service employees.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday denied a motion filed by the unions seeking a full review of the case. Yesterday, the unions said they would fight on.

The American Federation of Government Employees, representing a coalition of labor groups, said it would return to court this week to file the procedural motions to begin an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The new personnel system would overhaul how the Defense Department's civilian employees are paid, promoted and disciplined. It also would sharply curb union rights and restrict issues that could be put on bargaining tables.

Pentagon officials have said the changes will make it easier to reward the department's best workers and improve overall performance of programs and operations.

But a coalition of unions has objected to the changes in workplace rules, contending that they gut bargaining rights.

The unions won the initial round in the court battle in 2006, when a U.S. District Court judge blocked the Pentagon from implementing key parts of the new personnel system.

But a three-judge appeals panel reversed that decision, in a 2 to 1 ruling, in May. The unions protested that ruling, and the full court appeals court declined to take up the case, according to a docket notice posted Friday.

"This case was always meant to go up to the Supreme Court, no matter who won or who lost," Joe Goldberg, a lawyer for AFGE, said.

The Defense Department said in a statement that it would continue rolling out the National Security Personnel System while awaiting instructions from the court. "Once a mandate is issued, we will evaluate all relevant information prior to making any decisions on the next steps," the statement said.

About 112,000 Defense Department employees are in the new system, and officials plan to transfer 90,000 employees into the system by spring. These employees are not covered by union contracts.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address

© 2007 The Washington Post Company