Equal Employment Opportunity

Discrimination Complaint Caseloads and Underlying Causes Require EEOC's Sustained Attention Gao ID: T-GGD-00-104 March 29, 2000

Following a decade of rising discrimination complaint caseloads, growing backlogs, and lengthening delays in processing individual cases, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has begun taking steps, under new regulations, to better manage the complaint process. The agency has also begun to address problems with the completeness and reliability of the data that it collects from agencies and reports to the public. Both efforts are part of EEOC's Comprehensive Enforcement Program, announced in August 1999. At the broader level, the program includes plans to help address the root causes of employee complaints: discrimination and other sources of conflict in the federal workplace. All of these efforts are encouraging, but they will require a sustained commitment and follow-through on the part of EEOC if the agency is to achieve meaningful results.

GAO noted that: (1) the rise in the number of complaints caused growing backlogs of unprocessed cases; (2) the net effect has been that complaints, and the conflicts underlying them, have been left unresolved for increasingly longer periods of time; (3) in fiscal year (FY) 1999, federal workers filed close to 27,000 complaints with their agencies, 50 percent more than they did in FY 1991, when they filed fewer than 18,000 complaints; (4) there was a sharp increase in the average time EEOC took to process an appeal; (5) this figure grew to 473 days in FY 1998, from 109 days in FY 1991; (6) an undetermined number of federal employees have filed multiple complaints and, according to EEOC and other federal officials, account for a disproportionate share of the complaints that are filed; (7) EEOC reported in its 1996 study that a "sizable" number of complaints might not involve discrimination issues but instead reflect basic communications problems in the workplace; (8) faced with ever-growing caseloads, EEOC adopted a number of revisions to regulations intended to reduce agencies' and its own caseloads and improve case management; (9) the revisions allow agencies and EEOC to dismiss spin-off complaints and eliminate the fragmentation of complaints; (10) EEOC had not been collecting data on the number of employees who file complaints, nor on how often individual employees file complaints; (11) another problem with EEOC's data gathering is that it does not provide usable information to answer questions about the kinds of discrimination employees are claiming or the specific issues cited in their complaints; (12) the bases for complaints can include discrimination due to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, or disability, as well as retaliation for making an earlier complaint; (13) the issues that can be cited include such things as harassment or adverse personnel actions; (14) it is also clear that some of the data collected and reported by EEOC have lacked reliability; (15) EEOC's FY 2001 Performance Plan outlines a systematic approach to pursuing the eradication of discrimination in the federal workplace; (16) the performance plan outlines steps to help eliminate the causes of conflict by expanding oversight of the agencies and providing technical assistance, outreach, and training to the agencies and other stakeholders; and (17) another feature of the program is the requirement EEOC has put in place for agencies to make alternative dispute resolution approaches available to a complainant before and after a formal complaint is filed.

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