By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009 6:21 PM
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing the nation's job discrimination laws, is facing its largest caseload in at least a quarter-century with sharply diminished staffing and resources, according to commission and union officials.
The 44-year-old commission has been dogged by budgetary and staffing problems before, but union officials say the Obama administration faces a tough challenge in overcoming morale problems and an overwhelmed workforce.
Some allegations of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age or disability are languishing for months because of inadequate staffing.
More than 95,400 charges of job bias in the private sector were filed in fiscal year 2008, up 15.2 percent from the previous year and up 26 percent from 2006. But the size of the EEOC staff, which is responsible for investigating the complaints, has steadily decreased in size and now numbers 2,192, down from approximately 2,850 in 2000.
As a result, the commission's backlog of unresolved cases climbed to 73,951, up 35 percent from the previous year's total of 54,970. Fewer than half of private sector discrimination charges filed in the last year were resolved within 180 days, a goal that is now so difficult to reach that the commission recently changed its target compliance rate from 72 percent to 48 percent due to the agency's higher workload and decreasing resources.
"The backlog keeps building, building and building," said Regina Andrew, an EEOC trial attorney in the Baltimore field office and president of the union local representing field office employees in the Washington area.
"If you have a staff cut of that magnitude, it does have a negative impact, there's no getting around it," said Stuart Ishimaru, an EEOC commissioner since 2003 who was recently appointed by President Obama as acting chairman of the body.
Nicholas M. Inzeo, director of the EEOC's office of field programs, said the crunch is felt in every EEOC office around the country.
"Would they tell you they're overworked? Oh yeah," Inzeo said in an interview at the new EEOC headquarters in the NoMa neighborhood of Washington.
Even as the number of discrimination charges soared, the EEOC filed only 290 lawsuits against private sector employers last year, down from 371 in 2006.
The lower number reflects the decrease in the number of EEOC attorneys and other staff, Inzeo said. "If we had more investigators to investigate and more trial attorneys to litigate, we would do more," he said.
Trial attorneys have more cases than they can handle, according to Andrew. "As a result of that, cases get put on the shelf," she said. "Evidence does get stale and witnesses move away. I would say not all cases get hurt by delay, but a lot of them do."
Lengthy delays can also leave complainants vulnerable to retaliation at their jobs. "For many employees, it can make them lose hope that anything will ever happen, and it has a huge chilling effect on other employees," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals.
When Ishimaru was named acting chairman Jan. 22, one of his first acts was to send an e-mail to the staff asking for ideas on how the EEOC can best fulfill its mission of combating discrimination. "To succeed, we need to rethink the question of how well our Commission works," Ishimaru wrote.
By some measures, the EEOC has not been working well. The union awarded the EEOC an "F" for its performance in 2008. "Rock bottom staffing and record high charges of discrimination add up to another failing grade for the beleaguered civil rights agency," the National Council of EEOC Locals complained in a recent press release.
"This means if you knock on EEOC's door for help you can expect to wait a long time before anyone answers," said Martin.
Resources have languished over the eight years of the Bush administration. The agency's requests to hire support staff, investigators, attorneys, administrative judges and mediators to replace those who departed the agency have been largely unheeded.
"We just haven't had the money to replace most of them," said Inzeo.
The shortages frustrate many longtime EEOC employees who have seen their efforts to combat workplace discrimination suffer. "People say, 'I wanted to work at this agency because its work is important, but I'm so bogged down I can't get to hearings or I can't investigate my cases,'" said Martin.
"Generally speaking, people feel pinched," said Ishimaru. "People are tired of being told to do more with less."
Andrew complained the EEOC has been "sort of leaderless" under the previous chairman, Naomi Earp, a Bush appointee. "We do have a lot of hope that with new leadership, we can get the staffing we need," she said.
The Bush administration left one position on the five-member commission vacant for most of the last two years, leaving two Democrats and two Republicans on the board and often resulting in two-two tie votes. "Everything is pretty much deadlocked," said Martin.
Adding to discontent within the agency is the EEOC's move in November from its old location at 18th and L streets N.W. in the heart of downtown to its new headquarters in NoMa, the one-time industrial neighborhood north of Union Station that is being redeveloped with commercial and residential projects.
The agency leases more than three floors of space at "One Noma Station," on M Street, N.E., inside a converted warehouse surrounded by construction cranes. The EEOC corridors have a sleek, spare look, with red and white decor and glass doors.
"Employees hate it," said Martin. "There just are not a lot of amenities. The area will be up and coming, but not everyone is of the mindset of being the first ones."
Complaints are common about temperature fluctuations, tight quarters and the lack of underground parking, banks, and restaurants. Beyond that is a sense that the civil rights agency has been moved off the beaten track, particularly in comparison to the previous downtown location.
In addition to the headquarters, the new location houses the EEOC's Washington field office. EEOC officials worry that the tight security at the building ¿ the space is also shared with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives - may discourage some discrimination victims from entering the office to file a complaint.
"A field office should be in a place where it's easily accessible," said Andrew. "At One NoMa, a member of the public who wants to file a complaint can't just walk in. They have to be screened and escorted."
With the arrival of a president who once worked as a civil rights attorney, EEOC employees say they are hoping the agency will see better times.
"The new Administration brings new possibilities to the EEOC," Ishimaru told staff members in his e-mail.
"Many employees are very hopeful, but it's tempered with concern about whether they can do things for us because of the wars and the bailout," said Martin. "We do have a lot of hope that with new leadership, we can get the staffing we need."
"People who work at this agency are committed," said Inzeo. "They've been doing their jobs. There's a good bit of optimism that we'll do good and better things."