At a government agency that prides itself on protecting the rights of workers—the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—trouble is brewing among workers.
Some members of the staff, who asked to remain anonymous, say the current atmosphere at the EEOC headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., is more akin to “Mutiny on the Bounty” than working for a federal agency with a reputation for friendly workplace policies. The controversy swirls around a plan to relocate the commission’s headquarters to a rougher transitional neighborhood in Northeast Washington known as NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue).
The move is part of a broader strategic effort to lower the agency’s overhead costs and free up resources to help reduce a growing backlog of employment discrimination complaints, according to EEOC Chair Naomi Earp. At the end of 2006, the EEOC had an “excess inventory” of approximately 40,000 employment-related claims waiting to be processed—an increase of 19 percent from 2005. Some government projections show that the case backlog could reach 67,000 by September 2008.
The EEOC headquarters now sits in a desirable location in the middle of Northwest Washington—several blocks from the White House. Officials from the EEOC and the General Services Administration (GSA) would not confirm the new location of the headquarters, saying that a lease agreement had not yet been finalized. The government’s procurement rules prohibit anyone at the EEOC or GSA from discussing the matter publicly until the negotiations are complete, according to officials from the agencies.
However, Earp did not deny that the agency would move to the NoMa neighborhood and told members of a Senate subcommittee that members of the EEOC staff had made some “pretty good guesses” as to where the new headquarters might be located.
“After all, many members of the EEOC staff are very well-trained federal investigators,” Earp told the subcommittee during testimony on May 3.
However, Earp reiterated that no one at the commission could comment further on the site selection, saying only that a lease could be signed by the end of May. The EEOC’s current lease expires in June 2008. Earp told the subcommittee that it would take a least one year to prepare a site to meet the agency’s needs.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chair of the Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice and Science, called for the hearing to examine the EEOC budget request for fiscal year 2008. Mikulski said that she was concerned that EEOC did not seek an increase in staff over the 2,381 full-time employees budgeted for 2007. In addition, she expressed concern over the fact that the EEOC’s budget has not increased for the past five years.
“We are here today to find out if the EEOC has the appropriate resources do its job and enforce federal employment discrimination laws,” Mikulski said. “If the EEOC needs more resources, then we can try and make sure that happens.”
Mikulski questioned Earp about the impending headquarters relocation, saying she was troubled by reports in the news media about the rising discontent among the EEOC staff. Earp assured the subcommittee that her staff was working with the GSA to come up with the best and most cost-efficient options.
“Frankly, the current landlord does not want to renew our lease and plans to renovate the building completely,” Earp said. “We have no other choice, and the agency will have to relocate. Our job now is to find a site that best fits the commission’s needs.”
Mikulski did ask Earp if her staff was working with the GSA to make the site selection. When Earp replied that her office had gone through the proper channels with the GSA, Mikulski appeared satisfied with the answer.
In late April, Earp met with members of the EEOC headquarters staff about the relocation. The meeting, according to several sources, was contentious, with many employees complaining that they had not been consulted and that the new headquarters site was being thrust upon them. Several e-mails expressing concern about the new headquarters site circulated among newspapers and media outlets in Washington.
“While the area may be classified as a ‘prime commercial office district’ by some pre-determined standard, the reality is that residents of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area do not consider it to be so,” read one e-mail. “It is generally considered to be a wasteland of dance clubs, empty warehouses, hotels/motels and high crime.”
Other members of the EEOC staff have predicted that relocating to the Northeast Washington neighborhood would spark mass resignations and retirements from the agency. One person speculated that at least three-quarters of the EEOC headquarters staff would quit if the NoMa site was chosen. Approximately 500 people now work at the EEOC headquarters in downtown Washington.
Earp issued a memo to the EEOC staff stating that the agency’s options are limited and that rejecting any site recommended by the GSA would initiate another lengthy procurement process and a lease extension, which could cost the agency a lot of money in the long run.
“The EEOC is defined not by our headquarters address but by our passion, determination and commitment to promoting equal employment opportunities,” Earp wrote in the memo. “That said, I understand that this is an issue of extreme importance to you and I want to reassure you that I intend to make the move as smooth as possible.”
Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR News.