EEOC Hires Temporary Workers to Staff Phones During Transition

By Staff Report

Dec. 17, 2007

A stopgap measure will help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission keep its phones staffed until March after it closes its call center on Wednesday, December 19.

The four-member commission board voted unanimously on December 12 to hire 38 temporary employees and extend the contract on its interactive voice-recognition answering system for three months. The cost will be about $250,000.

But the complex transition to an in-house capability has divided the board and raised concerns about quality at a time when the EEOC is already under fire in a Supreme Court case.

The temporary employees will help the EEOC’s field offices handle a volume of calls that totals about 65,000 each month. The 24-hour answering system can resolve about 35 percent of the queries.

By late March, the EEOC hopes to have hired 61 federal workers permanently. The agency voted in August to close the outsourced facility, the National Contact Center, and establish an internal function. The move was necessary because Congress eliminated funding for the center.

Even though the EEOC is responding to a Capitol Hill action, the process of closing the call center has sparked two recent contentious meetings.

EEOC Chair Naomi Earp and Vice Chair Leslie Silverman supported extending the center’s contract during the transition. Commissioners Stuart Ishimaru and Christine Griffin voted for the December closure.

At the board’s most recent meeting, Ishimaru expressed frustration with the slow pace of the agency’s effort to put an alternative customer service system in place.

“Here we are a week before the phones are turned off and we have a proposal for what to do next,” he said. “We established an atmosphere that this is not urgent.”

Silverman took exception to Ishimaru’s characterization of the board’s attitude. “What we’re trying to do here is provide the best customer service we can under the circumstances,” she said.

Nicholas Inzeo, director of EEOC field programs, said that temporary workers will be trained on customer service “soft skills” and on EEOC procedures. But, he added, “We’re not going to be able to do as much as we could with the contact center.”

If claims are fumbled during the transition, it could amplify questions surrounding the EEOC’s administrative ability.

In a November oral argument involving the definition of an EEOC charge, or the action that the agency takes against an organization for alleged discriminatory conduct, several Supreme Court justices expressed frustration with the agency’s intake practices. A government lawyer at the hearing said the EEOC had improved its process for bringing charges since the case was filed.

Whether the EEOC loses public confidence during the upcoming transition will hinge initially on the performance of the temporary employees.

“It’s going to depend on who ends up answering the phones and their level of experience,” Griffin said after the meeting. “It’s better than not doing anything.”

Ultimately, an internal customer service system will work better than the call center, Ishimaru said in an interview.

“It was another layer that was added that did not add value to our process,” he said. “We should have EEOC employees answer the phones.”

Ishimaru’s term on the commission ends in January. It’s not clear whether his reappointment will be confirmed by the Senate.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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