WASHINGTON -- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chairwoman Ida L. Castro told a panel of employer representatives yesterday that the agency is implementing a major outreach initiative to increase communication, education, and technical assistance to the small and medium-sized business community. The objectives of the initiative are to bolster their access to information about the anti- discrimination laws and promote voluntary compliance.
The initiative was launched by Chairwoman Castro at the first Commission meeting held since she assumed leadership at the agency about six weeks ago. During her Senate confirmation hearing last July, she emphasized that reaching out to small and mid-sized employers would be a priority during her tenure. Yesterday's meeting was the first step in this ongoing process.
"EEOC has marked a new beginning by engaging in a constructive dialogue with this crucial stakeholder group," Ms. Castro said. "I appreciate the significant contributions made by the individuals who came to share their ideas and concerns with us. The panel's fresh insights and unique perspectives will help EEOC explore how its processes can support, rather than inhibit, our mutual goal of discrimination-free workplaces."
The following panel of representatives of small and mid-sized employers testified at the Commission: Michael R. Losey, President and CEO, Society for Human Resource Management; William Hanigan, President and CEO, National Employer Council; and Randel K. Johnson, Vice President of Labor and Employee Benefits, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
While the panelists praised EEOC for its ongoing enforcement reforms -- reducing the time required to resolve charges since implementation of Priority Charge Handling procedures in 1995, conducting technical assistance seminars focusing on the needs of small businesses, expansion of compliance data on the agency's Web site, expanded mediation-based resolution program, and issuance of more simplified policy guidances -- they also highlighted some procedural areas that they said smaller employers in particular find problematic.
Panelists said that while improvements have been made, it still takes too long to process a discrimination charge, that agency investigators are not seen as objective in rooting out the facts of a case, and that small business owners do not understand the benefits of using mediation-based alternative dispute measures to resolve charges rather than going through the traditional investigative process. They called for expanded efforts to educate and assist small businesses, and supported cooperative efforts to do so.
Ms. Castro acknowledged some of the difficulties that many smaller businesses might encounter in responding to EEOC procedures: "What I'm hearing from the small business community underscores our need to immediately increase our level of customer service so that employers have a better understanding about our process -- and less anxiety -- when first contacted by the agency about a charge. We can do that now," she said. "And I assure our guests that their policy and process recommendations will be seriously considered, with an eye toward making further progress in these areas."
Since implementation of the Priority Charge Handling procedures and adoption of the agency's National Enforcement Plan about two years ago, the pending inventory of charges has been reduced by more than 50 percent from a high of 111,000 to 52,011 as of last September. In addition, the average charge processing time has dropped by over two months from 379 days in 1996 to about 310 days currently.
Nevertheless, EEOC believes that more improvement is needed. EEOC is using its $37 million budget increase for fiscal year 1999 to hire more investigators, strengthen investigative procedures already in place, expand the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program nationwide, increase education and outreach to EEOC stakeholders, and improve the quality and timeliness of the agency's operations through integration of advanced information technology.
"The Commission will utilize the new funding to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of agency operations, with a special focus on a national expansion of our ADR program," Ms. Castro said. "We intend to work closely with the employer community to educate companies about the benefits of ADR as a more cost effective, neutral, and timely alternative to the traditional investigative process."
While scarce resources previously limited the ADR program, the agency nonetheless received favorable results. In FY 1997, EEOC resolved 841 charges through mediation and almost doubled that in FY 1998, resolving 1,631 charges. In FY 1999, EEOC will use $13 million in new funds, as directed by Congress, to launch a national expansion of the ADR program.
The Commission is examining innovative ways to design its ADR program to be more attractive to employers, especially small and mid- sized companies. Both internal and external surveys show that a majority of employers reject the ADR option, while most charging parties accept it. The Commission intends to work with small business advocacy groups to broaden their membership's interest in ADR participation.
All the panelists emphasized their commitment to working with EEOC in reaching out to and educating small business owners, and continuing their dialogue with the agency.
This page was last modified on December 10, 1998.
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