Discrimination complaints are sparking changes

Newswatch...ON FEDERAL WORKERS

August 12, 1992|By Adrien Seybert | Adrien Seybert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- The fallout of the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal appears to be leading to congressional change of the process by which the government fields sexual harassment and other discriminatory complaints launched by federal employees.

The Senate is to consider next month legislation that would restructure and streamline the system and hand it over to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which currently investigates private sector complaints.

The Senate Government Affairs Committee last week approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, without dissent.

A companion bill is pending before the House Education and Labor Committee, after having been approved by the House Post Office Committee in July.

"The equal employment opportunity complaint process leaves federal workers with the feeling that the deck is always stacked against them," Mr. Glenn said.

"While trying to smash through the glass ceiling, an employee shouldn't have to fight an iron curtain of bureaucracy and indifference," he added.

Mr. Glenn said his bill would begin to change "this draconian system, which hasn't ever been revised in 20 years."

His measure would take agencies out of the business of judging and give them the power to penalize individuals found guilty of sexual harassment and other discriminatory actions. No such penalties currently exist.

A staff member said Mr. Glenn plans to have the bill put on the Senate's unanimous consent calendar, which is designed to hurry floor passage because it limits the number of amendments that lawmakers can offer.

The Bush administration "strongly opposes" both the House and Senate plans, EEOC chairman Evan Kemp wrote in an Aug. 4 letter.

The EEOC investigates roughly 60,000 complaints a year. With full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the total is projected to climb by 15,000 to 20,000 a year. With federal employee complaints added in, the number could balloon by another 17,000 or more, EEOC projections show.

Since the early 1980s, Congress has slashed the number of EEOC investigators from 3,390 to 2,821. Investigators this year will close an average of 85 private sector cases, almost three times the closure rate of investigators pursuing federal employee complaints.

"The agency right now is facing one of the most challenging years of its existence," said Dawn Weyrich Ceol, an EEOC spokeswoman. She said investigators "are operating at an absolutely unconscionable level."

President Bush requested $245 million to enable the EEOC to hire 300 additional staff positions in fiscal 1993. The House and Senate supplied less than $220 million for fiscal 1993, the point at which EEOC would be operating at current levels, when inflation and mandatory cost increases are factored in.

The General Accounting Office estimated last March that the House proposal to put the complaint process under EEOC domain would cost $25 million. The GAO indicated this would save the federal government about $103 million a year -- the amount being spent to investigate discriminatory complaints, according to a written statement issued by Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., the bill's sponsor.

But finances are just the half of it, Ms. Ceol explains.

A flaw with Mr. Glenn's legislation may be that it does not require the accuser and the accused to air their grievances in front of agency counselors before going to court.

"The vast majority of complaints are settled through mandatory counseling," Ms. Ceol says.

Delaware Sen. William Roth, the committee's ranking Republican, claimed last week that counseling has reduced federal employee complaints from 80,000 to 18,000 a year.

"I'm afraid it [the plan's failure to require counseling] would be a significant step backward," Mr. Roth said.

Ms. Ceol predicts Mr. Glenn's plan would "clog up the court system even more" because it "doesn't encourage bargaining."

A Glenn staff member said witnesses at congressional hearings early this year testified that the role of these agency counselors "was to stall and delay" the process until employees eventually "gave up" pursuing their complaints. The aide said the government is "hard-pressed to call that successful."

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