Workers who have faced discrimination made illegal by federal law — age, race, sex, disability, color, religion, and national origin — will soon learn, if they have not already, that filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is generally a necessary first step towards pursuing a discrimination claim against their employer. To start this process, workers have previously been required to contact the nearest EEOC office. Now the EEOC, in an effort to improve efficiency and assist workers more effectively, has a centralized call center, the National Contact Center (NCC), based in Lawrence, Kansas. Although the proposal was controversial, and efforts were made to derail the new call center, since March 21, 2005, the NCC has been open for business and accepting calls from the public.
If you’ve faced the types of discrimination mentioned above that are made illegal by federal law, you can’t just file a lawsuit against your employer in court. First, you’re required to “exhaust” your claim, which means that before filing a lawsuit, you must submit your claim to the federal governmental agency empowered to address discrimination, retaliation and harassment claims, the EEOC, and/or a state agency with whom the EEOC has an agreement to share claims processing. For more information, see our site’s page on filing a discrimination complaint, selecting your state for the most relevant information.
Any individual who believes he or she has been discriminated against in employment may file an administrative charge with the EEOC. After investigating the charge, the EEOC determines if there is “reasonable cause” to believe discrimination has occurred. If “reasonable cause” is found, the EEOC attempts to conciliate the charge by reaching a voluntary resolution between the employee and employer.
EEOC also has a mediation-based alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program, which encourages all parties, with the assistance of a neutral mediator, to voluntarily participate in confidential deliberations that resolve discrimination issues in appropriate cases. If conciliation is not successful, the Commission may bring suit in federal court. As part of the administrative process, the EEOC may also issue a Right-to-Sue-Notice to the charging party, allowing the employee to file an individual action in court without the Agency’s involvement.
In order to file an administrative charge, employees have historically been required to locate the nearest EEOC field office. While employees could call the local office to just get basic information, the offices did not have employees devoted solely to call screening. Critics charged that this system meant that the agency’s investigators, mediators and lawyers spent too much time fielding calls and answering basic questions, which kept established cases from moving along as efficiently as needed. Cynthia Pierre, the EEOC’s director of field management programs, identifies the problem this way: “There were a lot of calls that weren’t getting answered. People would wait for days for messages to be returned. The technology was pretty obsolete or inadequate…. It was taking away from time we need to spend investigating and litigating” discrimination cases.” (See GovExec.com article.) The EEOC estimated that around 60% of calls to the field offices were of a basic entry-level nature that could be handled by employees outside of the individual field offices. (See Kansas City Star article.)
Now some of these calls will be fielded by the National Contact Center’s staff of 36, based in Lawrence, Kansas. For workers who dial (800) 669-4000 (or 800-669-6820 using a TTY for the hearing impaired), the NCC will provide immediate access to customer service representatives in 150 languages (via a link to Tele-Interpreters translation service) between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern Time. An automated system with answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) will be accessible on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. The NCC also has a secured website with FAQs for those who would rather access content online. (See the NCC Support Site.) The EEOC selected the company of Pearson and Associates to oversee the pilot project creating the NCC, after reviewing the company’s work for around three dozen other governmental agencies.
Establishing the call center was a controversial decision, not without its critics. Last year, EEOC’s employee union, a local of the American Federation of Government Employees, was unsuccessful in its efforts to urge Congress to forestall the center’s creation, arguing that it would actually decrease efficiency because poorly trained workers would shuttle calls to local EEOC offices, and claiming that the proposal “could diminish the ability of the EEOC to perform its important mission of helping working Americans to fight back against discrimination in the workplace.” The National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), WF’s allied organization, in testifying against various EEOC restructuring proposals, claimed that “sophisticated counseling during intake…is best done by investigators familiar with local issues.” (See Written Testimony of September 8, 2003 by L. Steven Platt.) However, efforts to stop the call center from being funded failed, and an 18-month pilot project is in place to evaluate the NCC’s effectiveness.
Centralizing call center functions will not replace all public contact with EEOC’s field offices, however. According to EEOC staff, at this time there is not an automated way to route calls from the field offices to the call center, so those who call the local field office numbers directly will still receive assistance locally. And the charge-filing process will still necessitate that a worker meet in person with an investigator at the local field office (unless waived due to distance or other reasons). The call center is trained to expedite cases where employees have a filing deadline (300 days in most states, but as little as 180 days in some states; for more information, click here) about to expire. However, before making any assumptions about deadlines, employees concerned about this issue may wish to contact their local office directly, or consult with an attorney knowledgeable in employment law.
While it is not required to have an attorney to pursue an administrative complaint with the EEOC, you should consult with an attorney prior to filing your charge, if possible. Just because the EEOC helps you file a charge of discrimination does not mean it meets all legal requirements. Further, EEOC personnel are generally not lawyers and cannot be expected to understand all the legal complexities that your case may present. Also, certain discrimination claims do not require an EEOC charge, and a lawyer can discuss all of your possible claims with you. Further, important legal strategy decisions often need to be made prior to filing a charge of discrimination. Yet if you are unable to find an attorney who will assist you, it is not necessary to have an attorney to file a charge with the EEOC.
It remains to be seen, and will be closely scrutinized over the next 18 months, whether the pilot project will meet the goals stated by the EEOC’s Chairperson, Cari M. Dominguez, of “serv[ing] the public better, faster and more efficiently.” (See EEOC Press Release.) For some if not most workers, it may very well expedite the process of gathering basic information. The interplay between the call center and local EEOC offices will make all the difference in this project’s effectiveness. Will workers who just need information get all of the information they need from the call center? Will workers who need to interact with the local field offices get passed along quickly and effectively? Will workers with valid complaints of discrimination be discouraged from filing those claims due to any factor in the new communications process?
For now, workers have two places to call to get basic information: the call center and their local field office. If in doubt about where to go or to whom to speak, remember that the most important thing is for workers to promptly ensure that their administrative claim is filed locally, which is the only way to protect the ability to pursue a discrimination claim in the future.