EEOC reorganization a highlight, departing chairwoman says

By Jenny Mandel

Departing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Cari Dominguez on Monday listed an agency reorganization and efforts to streamline processing of federal employees' complaints among the highlights of her five years leading the agency.

Dominguez announced earlier this month that she would step down as head of EEOC when her term concludes at the end of August.

In an interview, Dominguez touted a multiyear reorganization effort that shifted staff from headquarters to field offices. "We don't need that type of hierarchy," Dominguez said, noting that the move reduced management layers in favor of front-line staff. New field offices in Las Vegas and Mobile, Ala., will help the agency respond to the increasingly distributed American workforce, she said.

Dominguez said the reorganization also will allow the agency to use information more seamlessly. "We should operate as a national EEO firm," she said. If a problem is identified in Chicago and employees think it may also be happening in Atlanta, they should be encouraged to explore the connection, she said.

Dominguez called that strategy "systemic litigation," and said it also encompasses looking proactively at multiple complaints against the same employer at different locations.

Employee unions have criticized the reorganization, saying it has strained the EEOC's tight resources and that the agency cannot afford to support the additional offices.

Noting that the past five years have been characterized by an intensive focus on defense and international affairs -- with, by implication, fewer resources for organizations like EEOC -- Dominguez said the agency has nonetheless been able to reduce the average processing time for federal EEO appeals.

The agency's backlog of appeals more than 500 days old has decreased from almost 3,000 cases in 2001 to less than 300 cases today, said Robert Barnhart, a senior official in EEOC's Office of Federal Operations.

In addition to hearing appeals, EEOC provides technical assistance and monitoring for agencies' in-house EEO offices. Dominguez acknowledged that despite efforts to increase the use of alternative dispute resolution and cut the time that agencies take to process complaints before they go to the commission, the average processing time, at 411 days, remains far above a 180-day target.

She said she would have liked to better address the problem of age discrimination, and noted that "generational diversity is an issue that's here to stay," and also cited the low number of disabled people working in government as evidence of an ongoing equal opportunity problem.

Looking back on the big events that shaped her tenure at the agency, Dominguez said the Sept. 11 attacks, which took place days after she stepped into the job, brought new EEO challenges. About 900 discrimination complaints were filed by Arab-Americans in the immediate aftermath.

When one of the EEOC's two biggest offices, located in Seven World Trade Center, was destroyed in the disaster, the agency struggled to reconstruct files for ongoing cases and to develop backup plans for the future. "We benefited operationally from the harsh, tragic experience of 9/11 because we had those systems in place" when Hurricane Katrina struck, Dominguez said.

The agency is now working to extend its telework capabilities. All field investigators are slated to have laptop computers by the end of the year, she said.

As for future plans, Dominguez said she plans to return to the private sector, where she worked following a stint at the Labor Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, and is considering offers in which she would continue to work on employment and access issues.

"It'll be nice to be a civilian again," she said.