"It's a long, drawn-out process to discourage people from filing complaints," said the GS-7 federal employe who filed a racial discrimination complaint against the National Aeronautical Space Association where she works. After four years in the courts she settled out of court, receiving the promotion and advanced job-training.
A GS-15 with the Department of Transportation agreed that the process was cumbersome.He had filed a sex discrimination case against his agency.And after a six-month court battle he, too, settled out of court, winning the promotion and back pay he had sought.
Neither employe who filed employmewnt discrimination complaints said he or she regretted the experience or the lesson learned that with perseverance and lawyers trained to handle your problem the system can work.
Six years ago the District of Columbia Bar Association began to train lawyers in the specialized area of job discrimination. Today those lawyers are members of the Employment Discrimination Complaint Service, which lists more than 200 attorneys specializing in job-bias cases based on sex, religion, national origin, age or physical handicap.
The attorneys offer cut-rate fees of $10 to $50 an hour, which are considered real bargains since "court time for an attorney with substantial experience is $75 an hour," explained center attorney Katharine Klos.
Klos, along with paralegal Jan Wester, administers the day-to-day activities at the center in Suite 840 of 1426 H St. NW. They review cases, tell clients how to file formal complaints with state and local agencies, identify job problems that aren't valid discrimination complaints, explain various legal actions and recommend lawyers from their referral list. A $25 consultation fee is required for the initial service.
"People come to us at every stage - from their first thought (of lodging a complaint) to awaiting to apply to the Supreme Court," said Klos.
"It was recognized in 1972 that there were a lot of people with employment complaints that weren't able to find legal representation," added Wester. The service grew out of this need with the intention of educating lawyers in the job discrimination field, she said.
Education is provided through continuing seminars, reviewing federal and state discrimination regulations and job discrimination cases.Attorneys are mailed the latest literature on these issues, and every other Friday they can "brown-bag it" and come to the center to discuss cases. The service is available to employes in government and the private sector. About 400 cases are handled each year.
"I try to outline procedure and give clients some idea of the amount of money and time they may invest in a case," said Klos. "It's awfully hard to take the image of what people think they're going to get and show them what actually happens is hardly ever the same thing."
Proving discrimination is not always a prerequisite to finding a solution, agreed Wester. "You may still have to go to court to enforce it."
Webster cited the case of a female employe with the CIA who proved discrimination in a situation where she was denied a promotion. Yet the agency still refused to ake action to resolve the problem.
Others have had more success. "I received 90 percent of what I initially asked for," said the DOT employe, who wished to remain anonymous.
"When I decided to pursue this, the attorney I had wasn't knowledgeable in this area. But I think the attorneys who work for the service appear to be quite capable in handling these kinds of cases. I say this based on personal experience and other cases I've read about. They had the sensitivity and ability to handle it."
But the center has its faults too, according to some of the persons who have sought its services.
"I was disappointed with the first two attorneys I had," a NASA employe said. "I think they were more concerned about the money." Her third attorney, however, "was extremely competent. He knew exactly what to do. He explained everything to me and then proceeded in a very orderly and competent manner."