Clarence Thomas, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said yesterday he is abolishing the panel's public affairs office, which he said was "ineffective" at spreading the good news about the commission's successes.
Thomas said he is replacing the office with a trimmed-down office of communications, six of whose nine members will be political appointees. The 23 workers in the public affairs office have been told they will be laid off next month, he said.
"The agency has normal settlements" of cases, Thomas said, "but we don't even have those cases effectively communicated within the agency. Our successes were not even successfully communicated internally."
Thomas' move comes as critics have accused the EEOC under the Reagan administration of weakening the government's role as an aggressive enforcer of civil rights. These critics cite, among other things, the commission's recent announcement that it would move away from broad discrimination complaints against large companies in favor of more tightly focused cases involving specific individuals.
Thomas' decision to abolish the public information office was immediately criticized as an effort to control the flow of information to the public.
"They want complete control over information," said Ed Watkins, a representative of the National Council of EEOC Locals, part of the American Federation of Government Employes (AFGE). The union is seeking $108,000 in severance pay for the laid-off workers.
"What they'll be doing is politicizing the agency along White House lines," Watkins said. "They want complete control of everything that comes out of there, and the public's right to know will be severely restricted."
Thomas said the EEOC's controversial issues -- for example, those involving comparable worth -- are "only about 5 percent of what we do," yet they get the most media attention.
Thomas added, "Some people who are adversely affected think I'm going to have a propoganda machine here." That is not true, he said, because "it would be very simple for me to get a press person to go around the country and make Clarence Thomas look like a wonderful guy."
On another topic, Thomas said he is considering a one-to-three-day unpaid furlough for all EEOC employes in September if the commission does not make up a projected cash shortfall.
In explaining the shortfall, Thomas said the House last year cut $900,000 from the EEOC's budget request, and that the commission was hit with unexpectedly high telephone and other bills. Also, a drawn-out case against Sears Roebuck & Co. has proven tremendously expensive because of the need to pay outside experts, he said.