As complaints about workplace injustices pile up and resources dwindle, the Labor Department is trying to solve more cases out of court, three of the nation's top labor law enforcers said yesterday, but they also vowed to come down harder on employers who flagrantly violate the law.
"We will pursue the most egregious violators, protect the most vulnerable workers and seek higher penalties" against "bad actors," warned Thomas S. Williamson Jr., solicitor for the U.S. Department of Labor.
Mr. Williamson said U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno intends to ask U.S. attorneys to pursue criminal charges against employers who flout laws protecting employees' rights.
But, he added, a growing number of cases -- in which violations may be considered inadvertent or less serious -- will be handled by mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods that are "swifter and more effective than litigation."
In a speech yesterday before a group of manufacturing company human resources managers meeting at the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency in downtown Baltimore, Mr. Williamson said the Labor Department is getting more creative in its penalties.
For example, the agency has started temporarily barring from government work employers who consistently violate their affirmative action plans.
And the Labor Department plans to step up its seizures of goods produced by workers who were paid less than the legal wage or treated illegally in other ways, he said.
Gilbert F. Casellas, who took over as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September, also said he will try to move more employment discrimination and harassment cases to mediation because his agency is overwhelmed by work.
"There is no public confidence in the agency," he said. "We are, I think, in a crisis."
That's partly because the EEOC's staff has shrunk even as its caseload has burgeoned.
In 1980, the EEOC's 3,400 staffers handled 56,000 complaints. This year, he said, the EEOC staff of 2,800 will accept 92,000 allegations of workplace discrimination from nongovernmental employees. That adds up to a 19-month backlog of cases, he said.
"We have a crushing caseload. We're seeing sex harassment, race discrimination and hostile environments," Mr. Casellas said. "The public thinks all these problems have been solved. But they haven't.
"We can't do it all. I know we can't. We have to be more strategic," he said.
The National Labor Relations Board is taking a similar approach.
The NLRB, which regulates the activities of unions and organized workplaces, will increasingly ask for contempt of court citations against "recidivist" employers and unions, said Chairman William Benjamin Gould IV.
But for the rest, the agency is trying to speed up decisions, thus reducing legal fees for both sides.