The federal agency responsible for prosecuting job discrimination cases announced yesterday it will consider claims by "testers" -- individuals sent out by civil rights and community groups to detect bias against minorities or women.

Evan J. Kemp Jr., chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), said the agency has concluded it has the legal authority to consider allegations of job discrimination by "testers" who have uncovered evidence that minorities and women are being treated differently in applying for jobs.

"There is a crime wave of employment discrimination across the country and we need all the help we can get in stamping it out," Kemp said.

Using testers who pose as renters or purchasers has been a popular technique in housing discrimination cases. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that testers given incorrect information have the right to sue for violations of their right to be free from housing discrimination even though they did not actually intend to rent or

buy.

But testers have been little used in efforts to uncover and prosecute job discrimination, in large part because it is more difficult to structure testing programs in the employment field than it is in housing.

In a 12-page legal analysis, the EEOC said the principles involved in fair housing cases also applied in employment situations and concluded that employment testers have standing to file charges of discrimination against employers, employment agencies or labor unions that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin.

The agency said its analysis would apply to claims of age discrimination as well.

Civil rights lawyers praised the announcement and said testing could be a valuable tool to detect job bias that might otherwise go uncovered and to deter employers from discriminating on the basis of race or sex.

NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Kerry A. Scanlon, who has filed a number of housing cases involving testers, called the move a "welcome change" in the Bush administration's approach to civil rights laws, but one he characterized as "insignificant" in comparison to the president's recent veto of civil rights legislation.

Joseph M. Sellers, of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, described testing as "one of the most powerful devices we have today in the civil rights field to identify and challenge discriminatory conduct."

The Lawyers' Committee recently settled a lawsuit against three District taxicab companies based on testing that showed blacks in the city were almost seven times as likely as whites to be passed while trying to hail a cab.

Sellers said the Lawyers' Committee has been sending job testers for the last few months to apply for certain positions in the Washington area, which he declined to identify. NAACP lawyer David Honig said the group planned to train testers in 11 other cities.

Business lawyers expressed concern about the use of testers in employment cases. Stephen A. Bokat of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the announcement "bothers me for a lot of reasons. What happens when the employer does offer the person the job? . . . They ultimately select a person who doesn't want the job because they're a tester and the employer has gone through all this great expense of time and money to select the applicant."

Bokat also said that "proving the case" of an employment tester would be "infinitely more difficult than it is in the housing context," where the "only issue is whether someone is financially capable of paying the rent on the property or buying a piece of property."

In job testing cases, he said, "there are all sorts of things, how articulate the person is . . . lots more subjective considerations that go into a decision. Just the fact that someone's a tester and has been rejected doesn't per se {automatically} establish a case like it will in the housing area."

Kemp said he thought those were legitimate concerns but that the benefits of using testers outweighed them. "Applicants can face the most egregious discrimination and not be aware of it," he said. "This is one of the areas that I think we've probably been least effective in our 25-year history and this is an attempt to meet that."

Kemp said his interest in using testers in employment cases was sparked by a report on CBS's "60 Minutes" last winter about a New York City employment agency that featured the use of testers. The agency was sued by city and state authorities.

In Florida, the NAACP has filed complaints with the EEOC based on a six-month testing program that found widespread discrimination in hiring practices by Miami hotels and restaurants, which offered blacks menial jobs and gave similarly qualified whites higher-paying positions.