Federal agencies allowed worker complaints about discrimination and harassment to languish well beyond the time allotted to process them, frustrating employees and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, according to an annual report on the federal workplace released yesterday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On average, the 356-page report for 2003 concluded, federal agencies take three months longer than the 180 days they are given to investigate claims of sexual harassment, racial bias, age discrimination and complaints of retaliation against whistle-blowers.

"The average processing time, we think, is unacceptable," said Cari M. Dominguez, the commission's chair. "Justice delayed is justice denied. We are not moving these cases as quickly as we should."

Although the 13,248 worker complaints in 2003 were down 8 percent from the previous year, only 5,307 investigations were completed within the 180 days allowed. Agencies took an average of 267 days to finish the job.

Completing investigations is crucial because it is only the first step in a long process. Cases often require mediation, hearings before an administrative judge, appeals and reconsiderations.

"It's very lengthy, very costly and very cumbersome," Dominguez said. "It's not uncommon to have a case sit for years going through all the various phases of the complaint-processing system."

Worker complaints cost an average of $2,600 each to investigate, the study said. Last year, processing complaints through all channels cost about $60 million.

Dominguez called the case backlog at agency offices "a chronic problem." She said a few more egregious offenders -- the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency -- "are skewing the curve."

According to the report, the USDA took 778 days more than the allotted time to process complaints; HUD, 559 days; the EPA, 491 days; and HHS, 329 days.

That compares badly with the average processing time of 160 days for employment discrimination cases in the private sector, Dominguez said. Yet even the EEOC, which she oversees, took 400 days more to investigate its own workers' complaints than it should have.

"Our own agency," Dominguez said, a sigh in her voice. "Absolutely I share [responsibility] in terms of the cases that I've inherited. I'm pleased to tell you you're not going to see this next year."

Dominguez said private corporations faced with losing money in investigation time and lawsuits made the complaint process a priority. She said she's encouraged by the hiring of an undersecretary for civil rights at the Agriculture Department and by the efforts of other departments.

The EEOC report seemed to partly validate charges from worker rights groups and union representatives who have said federal managers consistently drag their feet when investigating claims.

In March, an employee watchdog group called the No Fear Institute issued a report card that gave the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Health and Human Services failing grades for slow investigations and for failing to punish managers even after they were proved to have discriminated.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, director of the institute, won a $300,000 federal court judgment against the EPA in 2000. She claimed in a lawsuit that a manager called her an "honorary white man" during a staff meeting and, later, said white superiors thought she was "uppity." Coleman-Adebayo, a senior policy analyst at EPA, is currently fighting the agency's effort to require her to commute to downtown from her home in Bethesda, where she has worked for medical reasons.

In 2003, the federal government employed 2.4 million people on the mainland and abroad. Of those workers, 67 percent were white, 19 percent were black, 7 percent were of Hispanic origin and 5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander.

Minorities and women represent far smaller percentages of workers at the senior pay level, some of the best jobs in government. Of the 15,000 senior pay positions, 7 percent were held by African Americans, 3 percent by Hispanics, 2 percent by Asians and Pacific Islanders, and 26 percent by women, according to the EEOC report.

Disputes over promotions drive up the number of complaints, workers have said.

Last year, the government paid awards of $40 million to employment discrimination complainants, after the investigations, hearings and reconsideration processes were exhausted. Appeals cost $20 million, the report said.