Fairness bill may help toughen bias response

FEDERAL WORKERS

April 07, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Federal workers battling on-the-job discrimination soon may be able to deploy a new weapon -- a strong government employee fairness law.

House and Senate lawmakers this month will continue working on a bill -- the Federal Employee Fairness Act -- to toughen and speed the government's response to equal opportunity complaints made by workers.

"We believe the bill will ensure an objective investigation of any discrimination complaint," says Lynn Eppard, legislative director of Federally Employed Women, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It is rolling forward in Congress, and the administration will have to respond to that movement."

As the measure picks up steam, an increasing number of allegations are being lobbed at federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration . Critics contend that these agencies are leaving women and minorities to toil in underpaid obscurity.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Tuesday protested SSA's alleged failure to promote African-American workers at a fair and equal pace. Earlier this week, NAACP leaders voiced that complaint before SSA Commissioner Shirley Chater, who plans to investigate the charge and meet with the group again in mid-April.

But to provide a long-term solution, many lawmakers say Congress must add muscle to today's anti-discrimination laws for federal workers.

Current law entrusts agencies to investigate themselves when employees file discrimination claims. While independent judges can be called in to issue rulings, those rulings are merely recommendations that the agencies can reject or modify.

As a result, executive agencies are loath to enforce a guilty verdict, says Debbie Billet-Roumell, legislative liaison for the National Treasury Employees Union, which is lobbying hard for the fairness measure.

"Executive agencies are nearly 500 times more willing to reject a finding of discrimination than rule in a federal worker's favor," she says.

Reforms included in the act would bar agencies from judging themselves and transfer all investigatory authority to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent agency that evaluates discrimination cases.

The bill also would impose strict time limits to address complaints. In 1991, the most recent figures available, the average time to rule on a complaint was 534 days. The measure aims at cutting that waiting time to between 45 and 180 days.

After circulating on Capitol Hill for seven years, the measure has secured bipartisan support in both chambers. The bill will come up for Senate and House hearings this month -- and supporters say only the congressional calendar stands in the way of passage.

"Time is the biggest concern now," says Ms. Billet-Roumell of the NTEU. "There are so few legislative days left this year, and we're racing against the clock."

In Maryland, the bill's supporters argue that agencies won't take a tougher stand against discrimination until Congress pushes them to do so. Some groups target the SSA as a prime candidate for change.

"Just walk around SSA and look in on meetings and see who has the power positions," says Clara Powell, president of the Baltimore chapter of Federally Employed Women. "They're usually all white and usually white males."

The NAACP also criticizes SSA's pay scales for minorities.

"We do not argue with them that they have hired a large number of black workers," says NAACP Maryland director Janice Washington. "But these workers are at the bottom of the [pay] scale and they're concentrated at dead-end jobs."

The SSA defends itself with statistics. SSA spokesman Phil Gambino says the agency's workers are 37 percent African-American compared with the private sector where African-Americans make up 10 percent of the work force. And, he says, the number of African-Americans employed in the agency's highest paying jobs nearly doubled between 1989 and 1993 -- a promotion rate he says outdistanced that for white SSA employees.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gambino adds, four of the agency's six deputy commissioners are African-American, including a woman who oversees equal opportunity complaints.

Last year, 78 percent of all discrimination complaints were dismissed by SSA, although the remaining 22 percent did not necessarily amount to an admission of guilt by the SSA, Mr. Gambino says.

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