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DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION 8/27/07

EEOC's call center function will be brought in-house

The call center function currently operated by a private contractor for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will be brought in-house, the federal agency announced on August 13, 2007. For the past three years, the EEOC has contracted with Vangent, Inc (formerly Pearson Government Solutions) for the National Contact Center (NCC), which handled phone calls to the agency's 53 field offices nationwide. As a result of a 4-to-0 Commission vote on August 10, 2007, the EEOC will replace its NCC pilot with an in-house phone answering team of federal employees. As part of the transition to an in-house system, the EEOC will hire a consultant to guide planning to ensure a sound, timely and cost-effective transition to a decentralized model utilizing each of the agency's 15 districts.

Contract extension during transition. The NCC contract expires September 20, 2007, but Congressional appropriators have proposed to eliminate funding for its continuation in the EEOC's Fiscal Year 2008 budget. The August 10 vote authorizes the Commission to seek a three-month extension of the current contract with Vangent to provide for a smooth transition. This transition period will permit the public to continue to use the existing toll free number at 800-669-4000. The TTY number for individuals with hearing and speech impairments is 800-669-6820. The NCC currently receives more than 70,000 calls and 3,000 emails each month. The contract also offers translation services in more than 150 languages, with an average call wait time of 30 seconds, and provides quick access to caller demographic data.

Considering the volume of calls received at the NCC, "an orderly transition from a contract solution to an internal operation is needed," according to Nicholas Inzeo, Director of the EEOC's Office of Field Programs. "Three months is the minimum amount of time necessary to ensure adequate customer service as we reconfigure the call center function to the new in-house system."

Call center controversy. The NCC has been the subject of considerable controversy since its inception. The National Council of EEOC Locals, No. 216, AFGE/AFL-CIO, the union representing EEOC employees, denounced the launch of the privately operated call center as "an oppressive day in the history of the 40 year old civil rights agency."

Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md) has opposed the NCC pilot from the beginning because she thought "it would create more bureaucracy and make it harder for people to file employment discrimination claims."

The Commission determined that the NCC contract would not be renewed in notation vote completed on July 26, 2007. On the same day, the US House of Representatives passed the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (H.R. 3093), which although providing the EEOC with $5 million more than the Bush Administration's proposed funding level for fiscal year 2008, also includes a provision prohibiting funds from being made available to outsource operations of the NCC.

In a separate action, the full Senate Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2008 spending bill (S. 1745) on June 28 that includes $50 million above the President's budget request for the EEOC, but also includes language stating that no funds could be used to operate the NCC. The full Senate has yet to consider the bill. The EEOC acknowledged the controversy surrounding the call center, while still defending its usefulness. "The National Contact Center provided a useful mechanism for the EEOC to address 21st century customer service needs while freeing up limited agency field staff to process our growing caseload," stated EEOC Chair Naomi C. Earp. "However, we recognize the strong opposition to the NCC expressed by many interested parties who want calls answered by federal employees."

Union reaction. This latest decision concerning the NCC was apparently unsuprising to the union representing the EEOC's employees. "Without the votes to go forward, and with Congress expressly telling EEOC not to go forward, EEOC was forced to dismantle the call center," said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216. "A three-month extension of time to bring calls into the offices is still three months too long, but shorter than the year the Commission originally sought and shorter than the six-month extension the Commission most recently thought it might push through."

In Martin's view, hiring the right people to answer the phones is the next challenge. "The public deserves more than expensive answering services," she said. "The Union always has advocated that skilled Investigative Support Assistants, or ISAs, should be hired to handle the phones. If the Commission does not invest in skilled workers to answer the phone and counsel the public, or chooses to have its extremely limited staff answer the phones, the Commission will have sabotaged the public again," Martin cautioned.

For more information on this and other topics, consult CCH Employment Practices Guide or CCH Labor Relations.

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