Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Who You Gonna Call?

December 28th, 2007 | Paula Brantner

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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