Tensions Flare on EEOC Board Amid Transition

By Staff Report

Jan. 31, 2008

The complex transition to in-house customer service has divided the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission board and raised concerns about service quality at a time when the agency is already under fire in a Supreme Court case.

A stopgap measure will help the EEOC keep its phones staffed until March after closing its call center December 19.

The four-member commission board voted unanimously last month to hire 38 temporary employees and extend the contract on its interactive voice-recognition answering system for three months, which will cost 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 targeted in a Supreme Court case.

The temporary employees will help the EEOC’s field offices handle some 65,000 calls 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 contentious meetings recently.

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 temporary workers will be trained on customer service “soft skills” and 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.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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