Investigating the EEOC: Has the Nation’s Workplace Watchdog Itself Engaged in Discrimination?

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US employment office

Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for protecting America’s workers from discrimination, retaliation and harassment, a report by USA TODAY reveals that the federal agency has itself come under fire for unlawful workplace practices.

The EEOC was born out of the Civil Rights Movement. Established in 1965 as the federal enforcement agency for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—which prohibits discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin—the EEOC was tasked with investigating and resolving claims of workplace discrimination. In fact, a complainant can only file a lawsuit in state or federal court once the EEOC or state agency has had a chance to investigate a potential violation of Title VII.

The USA TODAY report comes at a time when the EEOC has resorted to closing more cases after only minimal investigation in an effort to reduce its extensive backlog of cases. The vast majority of claims submitted to the EEOC receive a response of “no finding”, meaning the EEOC could not determine whether there was merit to the claim. In these cases, the agency issues a Notice of Right to Sue, which allows the complainant to file a lawsuit in civil court.

Only approximately 2–3% of cases each year are found to have merit, resulting in a positive outcome for the complainant. In 2019, for example, the EEOC received 83,500 claims of discrimination nationally. Of these, 1,200 resulted in a finding of discrimination—1 in 70 cases. Staffing is another issue: in 2018, the total number of EEOC staff dropped to below 2,000, the lowest since 1980. As of 2019 there were only about 570 EEOC investigators in the entire country, down from 150 in the previous decade.

The April 30th report by Brett Murphy, Javonte Anderson, and Nick Penzenstadler of USA TODAY recounts the stories of more than a dozen current and former EEOC employees who believe they were “unfairly passed over for promotions, disciplined, scrutinized, denied training opportunities, given poor evaluations or forced to resign,” because of their “race, disabilities, or sexual orientation.” More than a dozen employees spoke to the news outlet, alleging “systemic discriminatory practices” that disadvantaged not only Black employees, but members of other protected classes as well.

Patonia Rhule, a Black investigator, was suspended without pay for “being unnecessarily combative” after she sent an email to her colleagues at the Dallas EEOC office containing the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Investigator Dawn West-Lewis left the EEOC in 2015, citing the fact that she, a Black woman, was reprimanded for minor infractions, while her white colleagues were not written up for the same mistakes. Another investigator, Richard Reinhart, filed a complaint of discrimination in April 2021, feeling that he was being singled out for mistreatment because of his status as a gay man and a veteran of the Iraq War. He was fired less than two weeks later. A Dallas employee referred to in the report only as “Leonard” was suspended because he took approved medical leave to receive electroshock therapy for major depressive disorder. Current and former employees feared that a pattern was emerging.

EEOC employees, in a 2018 nationwide survey, had the highest percentage of staff out of any federal agency who “strongly agreed” that the work they did was important. Its investigators care deeply about the complaints filed with the agency, and many of them are concerned that the patterns of discrimination within the organization are reflected in the way it handles cases. From 2015 to 2019, the Dallas office received over 7,100 claims of racial discrimination from Black workers. It found that there was discrimination in 13 of those cases, or approximately 1 in 550. Recall that discrimination was found in 1 in 70 cases submitted to the EEOC nationwide, from workers of all races. Some have speculated that the Dallas district office does not take Black complainants seriously, and that these statistics replicate the attitude of the agency toward its own Black employees. Another Texas investigator, Sheila Squire, told USA TODAY that “she was explicitly told to stop investigating Black discrimination claims to instead focus on other types of cases, such as sexual harassment.”

Texas was not alone in producing allegations. According to the report, “a Black senior executive director at EEOC’s Washington headquarters” was demoted because of a poor performance evaluation provided by his boss, a white man, who was racially prejudiced against him. Some current and former employees complain about a toxic workplace culture which pervades the agency, making it difficult for them to believe in the agency’s ability to address discrimination in the workplace. Naseer Duncan, an investigator who resigned from the EEOC in 2017, told USA TODAY, “They don’t seem to care about the people who are most vulnerable.”

In a statement on May 6, 2021, EEOC chairwoman Charlotte Burrows said, “I plan to ensure that we get to the bottom of any allegations of mistreatment. And if there is a problem in any district or office across this agency, we will fix it.” Dallas district office supervisors assured their staff in a meeting the previous day that their concerns would be addressed, but provided few specifics.

The EEOC’s stated mission is to “Prevent and remedy unlawful employment discrimination and advance equal opportunity for all in the workplace.” It remains to be seen whether the EEOC will take action and effectively fulfill its mandate to root out workplace abuses. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking for those who most need the EEOC to live up to its mission—American workers facing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.