The Eeoc: Too Swamped To Shoot Straight

For Donald L. Monin, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been no help at all. The 55-year-old mechanical engineer filed an age discrimination complaint with the agency in February, 1993, after he was laid off by McDonnell Douglas Corp. After 29 years, Monin had risen to his unit's top position--only to be replaced by two employees at least 20 years younger.

The EEOC dismissed his charge last fall without ever interviewing him or his witnesses. And although he has since persuaded the agency to reopen the inquiry, Monin is still angry that it took the company's explanation for the layoff at face value. "They're not only not doing their job," he fumes, "they're working against me." The EEOC and McDonnell Douglas declined comment.

BIGGER BURDEN. Monin learned the hard way what many others already know about Uncle Sam's bias police: They can't shoot straight. The agency, which was set up in 1964 to enforce employment discrimination laws, has seen its staff shrink while its caseload has soared. Today, it's facing a backlog of almost 100,000 complaints, more than double the 1990 figure (table). "The agency has lost all its clout," says Stephen E. Tallent, a Washington lawyer who represents employers.

Already overwhelmed, the EEOC will be swamped if Congress outlaws affirmative action programs. Yet Presidential hopefuls Senators Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) want to scrap programs to bring women and minorities into the workplace. In their place, they would have the beleaguered agency shoulder the entire government burden of combating employment discrimination. But no one is in a hurry to come up with money to fix the EEOC. Add it all up, and it's clear: Banking on the EEOC to battle discrimination on the job won't work.

Things are so bad at the agency that many workers are choosing to file private lawsuits rather than go through the EEOC's administrative process, which can take as long as four years. In legal circles, some attorneys are so contemptuous that they regard it as "malpractice to file an EEOC charge," says Lloyd C. Loomis, a senior counsel at oil company Arco in Los Angeles. But that doesn't mean the agency, in theory, can't serve a vital function. For the vast majority of workers, "the EEOC is their only hope," says Los Angeles plaintiffs' attorney Nathan Goldberg.

SNAIL-LIKE PACE. Trouble is, the EEOC has never really had a chance to do its job right. Chronically underfunded, the agency's woes have grown more acute over the past decade as Republican Administrations squeezed its budget while lawmakers kept passing more antibias laws. Now, on top of the 1964 law barring discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, and gender, it polices bans against age discrimination, sexual harassment, and bias against the disabled. "The EEOC has been the product of one tinkering after another," says Ronald Cooper, a Washington employment lawyer.

Another problem: The agency must conduct a full investigation of every complaint. When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was EEOC chairman, he reversed an earlier policy that emphasized quick resolutions but left many charges underinvestigated. Thomas' decree, though, has slowed complaint processing to a crawl. And because of the swelling case load, investigators are still forced to rush through examinations. Full investigations are "a fiction when you have 100,000 cases," says EEOC Chairman Gilbert F. Casellas. "You just can't do everything."

Casellas, a corporate lawyer from Philadelphia who took over last October, is doing away with the Thomas model. He's pushing to make the agency as efficient as possible with the resources it has. He is readying a new prioritization system that would help weed out weak cases. And he'll likely seek to speed up cases through voluntary mediation. Casellas is on the right track, but he concedes that these fixes are "not magic bullets."

Even in its crippled form, the EEOC does wield influence over the workplace. The very presence of a federal watchdog helps check employers' behavior. If GOP leaders are serious about using it as the front line against discrimination, they'll have to put more dollars and muscle into the weakened agency so it can finally do its job. If not, they'll be sending the signal that fighting bias isn't worth much.

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