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Who You Gonna Call?

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When you think you’ve suffered from discrimination or harassment at work, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is supposed to be there to protect your rights as a worker. But your experience with the EEOC can be shaped by the very first phone call. Right now, the EEOC is scrambling to cover the phones which receive incoming calls from the public. Will this mean that cases with merit get lost in the shuffle, due to inadequate training and/or inexperienced staffers? Only time will tell, but it could be disastrous.

For the past three years, the EEOC has contracted with a private entity to run the National Call Center (NCC), which handled initial contacts to the agency’s 53 field offices nationwide. Vangent, Inc. (formerly Pearson Government Solutions) contracted with the EEOC to run the NCC, which received and handled approximately 65,000 calls and 3,000 e-mails each month. The outsourcing of the call center functions, handled in Lawrence, Kansas, was controversial from the outset. (See GovExec.com article.)

Employee unions complained about poorly trained employees who did not have the expertise in analyzing discrimination cases fielding calls, and lawmakers objected to privatizing the handling of civil rights complaints. The union representing EEOC employees called the call center launch “an oppressive day in the history of the 40 year old civil rights agency.” (See CCH article.)

The passage of time did little to alter the initial concerns about the NCC. The NCC contract was set to expire on September 20, 2007. Rather than continuing the initial pilot, Congressional appropriators eliminated funding for its continuation in the EEOC’s Fiscal Year 2008 budget. As a result, in August the EEOC voted to move back to an in-house phone answering team, and to allocate funds to hire a consultant to advise and assist the agency on transitioning to a decentralized configuration. (See EEOC Press Release of 8.13.07.) The vote extended the call center contract for three months to help ensure an orderly transition. (See Washington Post article.)

However, it appears the transition has been anything but orderly. With the expiration of the three-month extension rapidly approaching, the consultant advising the EEOC on the transition recommended another three-month extension. However, in November, two of the four EEOC commissioners voted against the extension, believing that the first extension had been squandered without an adequate transition plan developed. (See Washington Post article.)

The EEOC then issued a press release warning that service to the public could be disrupted due to the failure to extend the contract. EEOC Chair Naomi C. Earp, who supported the contract extension (and who has been a strong proponent for the NCC throughout its existence) remarked in apparent frustration,

Unfortunately, today’s Commission vote denying a reasonable extension of the National Contact Center will likely result in disrupted service to the public. Creating an in-house system and making a seamless transition is a complex and time-consuming process. We continue working as quickly as we can to put a new system in place. But we ask the public to be patient when contacting the EEOC during this transition period.

EEOC Press Release of 11.7.07.

Now the transition period is over, and even more chaos is apparent. The center’s closing date was December 19, but it was not until December 12 that the EEOC had a plan for handling the calls. On that date, the Commission voted to hire temporary employees to cover the phones, and to continue the contract with Vangent for its interactive voice-recognition answering system for three months, at a cost of $250,000. (See Workforce Management article.) The temp employees will be trained on customer service “soft skills” and on EEOC procedures, according to the EEOC’s director of field programs, Nicholas Inzeo.

EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru expressed frustration with the transition. “Here we are a week before the phones are turned off and we have a proposal for what to do next,” he said. “We established an atmosphere that this is not urgent.” Vice Chair Leslie Silverman disagreed, stating “What we’re trying to do here is provide the best customer service we can under the circumstances.” (See Workforce Management article.)

If temp workers are getting even less training than call center employees formerly received, as acknowledged by Inzeo, the public may be in trouble. According to Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, the union representing EEOC employees, hiring the right people to answer the phones is a major undertaking.

The public deserves more than expensive answering services. The Union always has advocated that skilled Investigative Support Assistants, or ISAs, should be hired to handle the phones. If the Commission does not invest in skilled workers to answer the phone and counsel the public, or chooses to have its extremely limited staff answer the phones, the Commission will have sabotaged the public again.

(See CCH article.)

It sounds like it will be a while before fully trained and knowledgeable employees will be hired to answer the phones, as a result of the Commission squabbling that has prevented adequate preparation for bringing the call center function back in-house. Given that all employees with potential discrimination claims must first contact the EEOC and file a charge in order to press ahead with a lawsuit against their employer, let’s hope there aren’t too many casualties before trained employees can give members of the public adequate guidance.

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What About Worst Employers?

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It’s the time of the year where reporters break out that oft-used story generator: the yearly list. When it’s too hard to put together a real story, it’s always possible to pull a bunch of unrelated items together, give it a theme, and call it your 2007 list. I can’t say I blame them — I’ve been known to do the same thing myself. But when CNN decided to publish a story called “Worst Employees of the Year,” you can imagine why my blood was boiling.

Last year, Workplace Fairness released a Labor Day report called: The Good, the Bad, and Wal-Mart: The Year in Workplace Fairness. You can tell from the title that we just didn’t report the bad news — we tried to provide some balance between positive trends and negative trends. Although we did not do another similar report this year, there honestly haven’t been that many changes from the previous year.

For example, on the “bad” side, we reported that “the income gap between the richest and poorest one-fifth of families is “significantly wider” than it was two decades ago.” (See Income Inequality.) Over a year later, the news is even worse. In an article entitled, “Report Says That the Rich Are Getting Richer Faster, Must Faster,” we learn that in the most recent data released by the Congressional Budget Office,

The increase in incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans from 2003 to 2005 exceeded the total income of the poorest 20 percent of Americans….The poorest fifth of households had total income of $383.4 billion in 2005, while just the increase in income for the top 1 percent came to $524.8 billion, a figure 37 percent higher.

Think about that: one percent of the people (who already have the most money of all) increased — not made, but increased — their income more in two years than 20 percent of the population. But the news article I read was not “Billionaires Behaving Badly,” or “2007’s Top Ten Corporate Criminals,” but focused on employees. Not that it’s criminal to make money, but when you compare a group of people who have it made to another group who can barely survive, surely the most shocking behavior comes from those who don’t have any mitigating circumstances.

Yes, there were some doozies on the list: when you have 128 million Americans who work for a living, not all of them are going to be perfect. There are people who lie, cheat, steal, use drugs, and endanger the health and safety of others in this world, and some of it happens in the workplace. The thing is, it’s not just employees who engage in this behavior. If you don’t believe me, check out the entries in Working America’s annual My Bad Boss contest. [Note: Working America is my current employer.]

But where is CNN’s Worst Employer List?

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Happy Anniversary, ADEA

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Recently, a very important anniversary passed — with far too little fanfare. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) just turned 40 — the very age of those it operates to protect. While race and gender discrimination cases may get more publicity, the ADEA is a steady workhorse. We will all grow older, and with the demographic and economic shifts that are keeping people in the workforce longer, there are and will continue to be a vast number of people who will need its quiet protection to ensure their careers are not prematurely stunted or ended by discrimination and stereotyping.

The ADEA was signed December 15, 1967 (coincidentally, the same year of my birth, so I passed the same milestone earlier this year and now, too, enjoy ADEA protection.) It has been amended several times since its enactment. The ADEA has been extended to public employees, although its application to state employees has been limited by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in recent years. Although at one time, the ADEA permitted employers to have a mandatory retirement age of 65, this was eliminated from the law in 1986.

The ADEA is both similar to, and different than, Title VII, the law which prohibits other forms of employment discrimination, such as sex, race, and religion. Some of the differences: for example, workplaces with 15 employees are required to follow Title VII (although state law thresholds may be lower). For for age discrimination, the threshold is 20 employees. Employees who win discrimination cases under Title VII are entitled to receive, in addition to their back wages, compensatory damages for their emotional pain and suffering (although those damages are capped at $300,000 for the largest employers), and punitive damages designed to punish the employer. Under the ADEA, those who prevail can only receive back wages, plus double damages (called “liquidated damages,” only if a “willful violation” is proven.)

However, the ADEA, like Title VII, is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru recently charged, however, in a panel commemorating the ADEA’s 40th Anniversary, that age bias “invariably comes at the end” of the EEOC’s consideration and that “quite often, it’s the stepchild” in EEOC’s enforcement regiment, even though age discrimination complaints make up about 25 percent of those received by EEOC each year. (See BNA’s Daily Labor Report, Dec. 5, 2007 (subscription only)). Notably, although the EEOC planned a large commemoration of Title VII’s 40th anniversary in 2004 (see EEOC Press Release of June 8, 2004), the ADEA anniversary has passed with nary a press release from EEOC to date.

AARP, a long-time leader on judicial and legislative efforts to combat age discrimination, commemorated the anniversary on December 4, by sponsoring a forum which featured panel discussions on the ADEA’s significance in protecting the rights of older workers, as well as how the Supreme Court has interpreted the law, and societal views concerning ageism. (See AARP Press Release). This forum was moderated by Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, President of the Workplace Fairness board. Unfortunately, this event did not receive media coverage outside the legal press, causing most of the public to miss this opportunity to more fully understand the importance of the protections the ADEA offers.

And they’re most likely going to need them.

Baby boomers are more likely than any previous generation to work well into their retirement, some for the social and mental stimulation and others for purely financial reasons. And employers say they need older workers. Shifting demographics could dramatically change the American labor force….

(See Kansas City InfoZine).

Employers have started to pay attention to age discrimination over the last 40 years — hopefully, they will continue to do so, with with such a large number of older workers with something valuable to contribute remain in the workforce.

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We’re Back!

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After about a nine-month hiatus, Today’s Workplace is back. Back in March, Workplace Fairness went through a restructuring which required laying off the staff and operating through the volunteer efforts of the board of directors. I am now the Program Director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, but serve on the Workplace Fairness Board of Directors. Thanks to a cy pres (residual award) in a recently concluded lawsuit, and the generosity of our supporters, old and new, we are able to resume some of our previous operations, which will ensure that Workplace Fairness, and the WF website, remains the leading source of information and education to individual workers and their advocates nationwide.

Where do you start when you haven’t posted in nine months? It’s enough to give me writers block! So much has happened, it’s hard to know where to start. But so much is happening, I’m sure a number of topics will suggest themselves. There are important Supreme Court cases, alarming workplace trends, and many key developments for workers, whether they know about them or not. I’m thrilled to be back, and will continue to do my part to translate what’s happening out there in the world of employment.

And if you like this blog, and all of the other things that Workplace Fairness does, it’s the time of year where charitable donations are on everyone’s mind. We hope that you have missed our work and want to see more of it in the future. If so, please consider a donation to Workplace Fairness during this holiday season. Or if you are a member of our “One Fund for Fairness,” please know that your 1% contribution this year will be most appreciated and will contribute to ensuring that you hear from us regularly in the future.

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