May 20, 2004


Age-based bias complaints on the rise

By Shawn Zeller

For the first time in more than 20 years, the number of age-bias complaints filed by federal employees exceeded the number filed by employees who said they were discriminated against because they were black, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On Thursday, EEOC released its 2003 annual report. Employees claiming they were the victims of reprisal for registering a discrimination complaint still topped the list, accounting for 10,269 complaints or 19 percent of the total. The number of times employees alleged discrimination based on age rose from 6,584 in 2002 to 7,047 in 2003.

Black employees alleging discrimination based on race dropped from 7,095 in 2002 to 6,600 in 2003. Employees are allowed to cite more than one basis for complaints.

One factor in the shift, according to an EEOC spokesman, is the aging of the federal workforce. The average worker is now 45.6 years old, more than 3.5 years older than the average 15 years ago. The average age at the Housing and Urban Development Department, exceeds 50, while employees of the Energy and Education departments are approaching an average age of 50.

Another factor may be the number of times that employees charged they were discriminated against based on color, without specifying their race, the report showed. That number more than doubled in the last year, from 879 to 2,108.

Overall, the report showed an 8 percent drop in the number of discrimination complaints filed by federal workers, from 21,945 in 2002 to 20,226 in 2003. But in a statement marking the report's release, EEOC Chairwoman Cari M. Dominguez said there was more cause for concern than celebration. "The processing of EEO complaints continues to be plagued with delays governmentwide," she said. "Case-processing statistics are going in the wrong direction."

The EEOC's multistage process always has taken a long time. Employees first report discrimination complaints to an EEO counselor at their agency. The agency can then try to mediate the dispute. The agency then must investigate the complaint and prepare a report. The employee has the option of asking the agency for a final decision or asking for a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge. In either case, the employee can appeal the decision to the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations.

In 2003, only the appeals process showed a significant increase in timeliness. Appeals averaged 285 days last year, while they averaged 467 days in 2002. In every other category, the process either took about the same amount of time or longer. Agency investigations averaged 267 days, and EEOC hearings 421 days, about the same as they did in 2002. Agency final decisions took 541 days in 2003, more than 100 days longer than they took in 2002.

For the first time, the annual report shed light on good agency performers. It mentioned the Tennessee Valley Authority, which took only 108 days on average to complete investigations; the State Department, which averaged 211 days for final decisions; and the U.S. Postal Service, for convincing 76 percent of employees to participate in an alternative dispute resolution program.

Dominguez also alluded to a controversial, proposed EEOC initiative to reduce processing times by funneling hearing requests through EEOC managers before they ever reach an administrative judge. Under the proposal, EEOC Washington field office managers would review hearing requests and recommend that they be dismissed, be granted summary judgment, or be passed on to a judge for hearing. The administrative judges would retain the right to overrule the managers' recommendations.

Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees announced that it was launching a campaign with the NAACP federal task force and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to prevent the initiative from moving forward. Andrea Brooks, vice president of AFGE's women's and fair practices division, said that the union was considering filing an unfair labor practices complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, while also suing the EEOC in federal court on behalf of employees denied a hearing.

She said that the proposed initiative marks a substantial change in working conditions and therefore should be bargained with the union. The union opposes the initiative, arguing that it would reduce the authority of EEOC judges and would deny federal employees their right to a hearing before an impartial arbiter.