Crib Sheet: Equal Rights at Work
Understanding the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Crib Sheet, Keith White, University of Virginia, Nov. 13, 2006
Understanding the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
By Keith White, University of Virginia
Though virtually unknown to the general public, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is America’s premier civil rights crusader against workplace discrimination based on race, gender, age, or disability. For 40 years the EEOC has responded to employee accusations of workplace discrimination, working to ensure that all Americans work in a fair and prejudice-free work environment. And it has done this while facing chronic under-funding and staggering public demand.
Take a look at this small sampling of successful EEOC action against civil rights violations in the workplace:
- 2006: An employee of a federally contracted janitorial service was awarded $190,000 after being sexually harassed and then fired after making a complaint.
- 1999: A mentally retarded employee was rewarded $230,000 for being unfairly fired from Chuck E. Cheese. Why was he let go? Even though the local manager and staff supported his continued employment, a regional manager did not want to hire “those kind of people.”
- 1991: A $66 million settlement was awarded to female employees of AT&T who were forced to take pregnancy leave before medically necessary
- 1982: One hundred and twelve former United Airlines pilots and flight engineers were awarded $18.2 million after they were forced into retirement at the age of 60.
But recently this unsung hero of working Americans has been under siege from the Bush administration. Americans have an unrelenting need for this workplace warrior, but crippling funding cuts, a detrimental hiring freeze, and poor management threaten to debilitate the EEOC.
EEOC Early History: Hard-Earned Success
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought the EEOC into a fragile existence. Hamstrung with weak enforcement abilities, it faced a daunting caseload. Opening up shop in 1965, EEOC officials predicted a caseload of 2,000. Instead, the five-member board and 100-person staff fielded 8,852 complaints.
But despite these challenges, the EEOC managed not only to shape employment discrimination law, but also halt many flagrant cases of workplace discrimination.
One such victory occurred in 1965, when the EEOC took on the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, reversing workplace racial discrimination affecting 5,000 workers. The EEOC not only brought equal-pay to these workers, but ensured equal opportunity for professional advancement.
In the 1970s, sex discrimination became part of the agency’s ever-expanding mission, whereas earlier it had focused on racism. Unfortunately growing responsibilities were not matched by increased funding, leading to a predictable result: a case backlog of 94,700 complaints in 1977.
The EEOC responded to this crisis by enacting reforms under the Carter administration: adding new field offices, replacing unskilled workers with professionals, and creating a new priority system for cases. President Carter solidified these reforms through his Reorganization Plan of 1978 and by executive order.
The Reagan Shift: Reigning In the EEOC
President Ronald Reagan came into office seeking to fundamentally change the way government works, and he made no exception for the EEOC. Reagan’s commissioners pushed the EEOC to enact a bottom-up model. Instead of focusing on discriminatory company policies that could affect large groups of workers, the EEOC instead looked at complaints on a more individual basis.
Proponents of the strategy saw discrimination as a personal phenomenon—the result of prejudiced individuals, not prejudiced policies.
This paradigm shift weakened the effectiveness of the EEOC. Full investigations of frivolous cases sucked up resources, and the individualist approach diverted attention away from systemic discrimination based on race and sex.
The EEOC’s case backlog mounted yet again, doubling from 1979 to 1985. And at the same time, the EEOC’s staff shrunk by 20 percent.
Reagan had pledged to enforce the 1964 Civil Right Act “at gunpoint if necessary.” But he did just the opposite, taking aim at the EEOC itself.
Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, broadened the EEOC mission to include age and disability discrimination and permitted jury trials in all discrimination cases. But Bush Sr. did not back these policies with increases in EEOC funding. Instead, the heavy-lifting was left to the Clinton administration.
Clinton Era Reforms and Bush II Backsliding
Without substantially increasing funds for the EEOC, the Clinton White House enacted highly successful reforms. The agency junked Reagan’s individualist case approach, adopting in its place a systemic strategy and reforming the priority system for complaints of workplace discrimination. The agency’s new three-tiered system quickly and cheaply ferreted out cases that were either frivolous or outside the agency’s scope. As a result, the EEOC was put back on track, and its backlog dropped by 64 percent.
During this time the EEOC also stressed inter-agency cooperation and employee education, striving to both prevent discrimination and more quickly combat it.
But George W. Bush has failed to build on these Clinton-era reforms. Instead the Bush administration has pushed the EEOC backwards, embracing a wrong-headed Reaganesque approach.
The EEOC today lacks the funds and staff it needs to protect American workers. Since 2001 the EEOC has instituted a hiring freeze, which has cut its staff by 20 percent. The EEOC has also embraced misguided cost-saving measures. One such policy has been to establish national call centers to replace more costly regional offices. Today untrained operators—not skilled and experienced professionals— are our nation’s first responders to workplace discrimination.
And the neglect continues. Next year’s White House budget request represents a $4.2 million funding cut for the EEOC.
EEOC supporters have managed to fight back. District of Columbia Congressional representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) successfully modified the EEOC 2005 budget request and passed an amendment this year to keep national call center funding on a year-by-year basis, not cut it permanently, as favored by the Bush administration. And in 2005 EEOC supporters successfully forced the agency to submit quarterly spending and staffing reports, preventing the Bush administration from hiding deleterious policies.
In the Senate, Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) has redressed many damaging aspects of the White House’s EEOC budget request. Using her seat on the Senate Appropriation Committee, Mikulski has increased EEOC funding by $4 million, drained funds from the national call center initiative, and reversed the hiring freeze.
Yet the EEOC’s tenuous position under the Bush administration won’t change any time soon: Incoming EEOC Chair Naomi Churchill-Earp brings with her an abysmal track record. Churchill-Earp served as director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Equal Opportunity (NIH). While she investigated 174 discrimination complaints there, she failed to file a single case.
Churchill-Earp’s record was so poor that the NAACP took the unusual step of opposing her 2002 nomination as EEOC Vice Chair. Unable to get Senate approval, Bush was forced to install her as a recess appointment in 2003. If Churchill-Earp replicates her dismal NIH record at the EEOC, supporters will find it even harder to beat back the corrosive agenda of the Bush administration.
Workplace discrimination is not a relic of the past, but a clear and present danger facing Americans today, and future generations. Therefore the survival of the EEOC as a credible agency is not just a concern to its employees, politicians, or a small number of workers who face discrimination. Forces who seek to dismantle the EEOC are dismantling our nation’s founding principles: that all men and women are created equal, with the inalienable right to pursue their happiness through hard work and equal opportunity, and that discrimination must be combated when it occurs.