The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is moving to streamline the process for handling complaints filed by federal workers in an effort to reduce a backlog that critics say frequently allows worker bias to go unaddressed in the government.

Last month, the agency, which polices workplace bias in both federal and private sectors, issued regulations slated to go into effect in November that would require federal agencies to try to reach settlements with employees both before and after formal complaints are filed. Currently, the mediation process is voluntary and available only in the early stages of the complaint process.

Also, under the new rules, agencies would have to accept the decisions of EEOC administrative judges or appeal them to the commission. Currently, the decisions of administrative judges are advisory and the agencies are free to reject or modify them. Critics have long complained that agencies use that power to bog down the federal EEO process.

"There are some good changes," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "The changes ensure that the decision-making on a complaint is kept outside the federal agency where the complaint was made."

The new rules are part of a broader effort by commission officials to reform the entire federal EEO process. A task force has been formed to examine how bias complaints are handled in the federal sector and to make recommendations for encouraging mediated settlements. The group is also attempting to identify workplace practices that are successful at averting complaints and to improve data collection.

The EEOC initiatives come on the heels of harsh criticism from congressional critics and others who say the much-maligned commission is particularly weak when it comes to enforcing antidiscrimination laws in the federal workplace.

"Believe it or not, we are trying to bring common sense to the federal sector," said Ida Castro, chairwoman of the EEOC. "We are committed to do everything we can to have a system that is fair, efficient and will hopefully be an example for other employers."

Last month, the General Accounting Office issued a report saying that the EEOC fails to monitor basic job discrimination trends among federal workers, a task that is complicated because it frequently is given faulty data by other agencies.

Another GAO report released last week said the number of unresolved bias cases against federal agencies more than doubled between 1991 and 1998, to 36,333. Officials think the increase was fueled by government downsizing as well as changes in the law that expanded discrimination protection to the disabled and allowed for the awarding of punitive damages.

One consequence of the increased workload is that it takes a federal case more than three years to travel the entire complaint process, from initial filing to appeal, a time period that "is nothing short of egregious," Castro said.

The backlog has caught the attention of union leaders, civil rights leaders and lawmakers, including Maryland Reps. Albert R. Wynn (D) and Elijah E. Cummings (D), who have directed the GAO to examine the EEOC's operation for federal employees and have called for sweeping change at the commission. The issue is particularly important in the Washington area, home to about 320,000 of the 2.7 million federal workers.

"I'm glad to see that they are trying to move forward," said Leroy W. Warren Jr., an NAACP board member who chairs the civil rights organization's federal task force.

In recent years, the EEOC has had considerable success in cutting through the avalanche of nonfederal employment complaints. Largely through the expanded use of mediation, as well as some staff increases, the commission has reduced its nonfederal backlog, which once stood at close to 120,000, by more than half.

But that type of improvement has not been seen on the federal side, in part because there is a separate--and more burdensome--complaint process for government employees. Under current regulations, federal agencies decide whether to accept or dismiss complaints that employees file with them. The agencies then investigate accepted complaints. After an investigation, an employee can request a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge, who may issue a recommendation to the agency, which makes the final decision on the complaint. If an employee objects to that decision, he or she can appeal it to the EEOC. Federal employees generally must exhaust the administrative process before pursing their complaints in court.

Nonfederal employees file charges directly with the EEOC, which investigates them. If the charges appear valid, the EEOC attempts to mediate a settlement, files a lawsuit on behalf of the employee or gives the employee clearance to file his or her own lawsuit.

Castro said she is confident the upcoming changes will help reduce the backlog, but the pace of that improvement will be contingent on increased funding from Congress for more administrative judges and attorneys to deal with the cases. Congressional budgetmakers, so far, are planning no increases in EEOC funding.

"These improvements will happen no matter what," Castro said. "But regulatory reform is not the entire answer. We need to focus on the federal sector and give it the resources that it needs."

CAPTION: Chairwoman Ida Castro: EEOC "committed to do everything we can to have a system that is fair, efficient and . . . an example for other employers."