EEOC gets green light for reorganization

By Amelia Gruber

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Friday approved an agency reorganization plan, over the opposition of one commissioner and Democratic lawmakers.

The plan, which was unveiled in May and has been modified slightly in response to suggestions from employees and outside groups, calls for the thinning of management layers at field offices, and for a greater emphasis on investigations, mediation, litigation, outreach and other front-line work. Agency officials estimate that the reorganization will save the EEOC $4.8 million over eight years, as higher salaried executives leave and are replaced by lower-paid workers.

Three of four commissioners, including EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez, voted in favor of the plan. Commissioner Stuart Ishimaru, who was appointed by President Bush in 2003, remained a vocal opponent.

"The commission's structure is an outdated liability," Dominguez said in opening remarks before the vote. "It was created before the telecommunications revolution and other watershed advances in organizational efficiency, and before discrimination shifted from bold and overt to subtle and sophisticated."

As part of his management agenda, President Bush has asked agencies to reorganize so that they are more results-oriented, Dominguez said. Federal managers who have failed to show that their programs are effective have seen budgets slashed or programs placed on the chopping block, said Nicholas Inzeo, director of agency's office of field programs.

"EEOC cannot afford to be on that list of agencies," Inzeo said, referring to the 154 programs that the Bush administration marked for elimination or significant cuts as part of its fiscal 2006 budget request.

The field office reorganization is the second in a three-stage process of a broader restructuring that has been in the works since 2002, when the EEOC asked the National Academy of Public Administration, an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress, for advice on how to use scarce resources more efficiently. The first stage entailed the creation of a national customer service center, and the third will involve a restructuring of headquarters to support the reshaped field organization.

Much more drastic field reorganization proposals were suggested over the several years of deliberation, said Leonora Guarraia, EEOC's chief operating officer. But EEOC leaders honored requests to keep all offices in the field open and to ensure that no employees would lose jobs or be forced to move as part of the restructuring, Guarraia said.

But Ishimaru said he remains opposed to change for the sake of change. EEOC officials have failed to make a strong business case, he said, noting that savings of $4.8 million over eight years "can only be described as de minimus." That amounts to $600,000 a year, he noted, adding that the $4.8 million total is less than the estimated cost of running a two-year test of the national customer service center.

As part of the reorganization, eight of 23 district offices headed by senior executives or GS-15-level regional attorneys will be downgraded to field offices directed by GS-15-level managers or GS-14-level supervisory trial attorneys. Two local offices -- one in Mobile, Ala., and a second in Las Vegas - will be added, increasing the number of offices in the field from 51 to 53.

EEOC officials completed the list of district offices to be downgraded without analyzing all the necessary data, Ishimaru said. They based their decision primarily on levels of charges filed and location, he said, but should have also looked at quality of work, outreach, numbers of cases referred for litigation, number of cases mediated and other statistics.

In a July 6 letter to Dominguez, 30 Senate Democrats expressed concern that by thinning ranks of regional attorneys and managers, the agency would see a decline in the number of charges referred for litigation. "There will be fewer people to refer charges to Washington . . . and regional attorneys who must make important litigation decisions will be separated from the investigators with front-line information needed to make those decisions," the letter stated.

The senators asked the EEOC to hold off on its reorganization until the Government Accountability Office has had a chance to complete research on possible implications.

"Any changes to the EEOC's structure should enhance its capabilities to deter, detect and litigate violations of the nation's civil rights laws," the letter stated. "We are not confident that this proposal will do that, and fear that it will actually undermine the commission's work."

But EEOC Deputy General Counsel James Lee said that the reorganization will not hurt litigation programs at any of the field offices. All litigation requests ultimately must be approved by either the general counsel's office or the commission, he said, and simply pass through regional attorneys. Cases could still be referred under the new structure, he said.

The reorganization proposal may not be perfect, said Vice Chair Naomi Earp, but change is needed and no strong alternates were offered. Critics failed to put forth any constructive criticism during an extended comment period, she said. "Frankly, I am disappointed at how the additional time for comment has been used," she said, calling the lack of substance in many of the submissions "disheartening."

Rachel Shonfield, legislative coordinator for American Federation of Government Employees Council of EEOC Locals 216, one of the groups in opposition, took exception to that remark. "I don't think it was the job of the public to come up with a plan," she said. Had the public been expected to suggest an alternative, more data should have been made available, she added.

AFGE will be watching as the fiscal 2006 Justice and Commerce appropriations bill (H.R. 2862) makes its way through Congress, Shonfield said. Language in a preliminary Senate the version of the bill would prevent the EEOC from reducing numbers of mediators, investigators or attorneys in field offices.

While the reorganization plan does not explicitly call for reductions in staff, the legislative provision is designed to prevent any "back door" downsizing as district offices are reclassified as field offices or area offices, Shonfield said.

The average EEOC district office has 63 employees, while the agency's sole field office has 37 employees and the typical area office has 18, she said.

The reorganization plan fails to address the EEOC's main problem, which is a lack of adequate staff, Shonfield added.