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The EEOC Gives Outsourcing a Try

November 9, 2004
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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calls it a much-needed customer-service upgrade. Critics call it a speed-for-quality trade-off. But whatever the label, beginning this spring, workers who want to file complaints with the EEOC will be directed to an outsourced call center in Kansas run by Pearson Government Solutions.

The national center will serve as a clearinghouse for public inquiries currently handled at EEOC’s field offices. Supporters of the center say that outsourcing the discrimination-complaint intake process to a federal contractor will ensure that callers’ inquiries and concerns are handled promptly and efficiently.

"We constantly get letters and complaints from people who wanted to file a charge or get general information, tried to call the EEOC and weren’t able to get through because of a busy signal," says Cynthia Pierre, EEOC director of field management programs.

According to Pierre, EEOC offices receive about a million unsolicited calls each year. Sixty-one percent of callers request general information that does not require investigative expertise, while the remaining 39 percent ask about filing employment-discrimination charges. Understaffed and overwhelmed, regional offices have been ill equipped to handle the call volume, Pierre says, and it often takes five days and longer for operators to respond to inquiries.

Opponents of the call center, however, say that hiring low-wage, underqualified operators to field calls will sacrifice quality of service for faster response times. "[The call center] sends a message that we’re just looking for a quick out to say we can answer our phones in three minutes or less," says Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216.

Other critics of the call center say that the EEOC should have considered the construction of an in-house customer-service facility. Pierre disagrees. She says the EEOC would have to spend $12 million for the technology necessary to set up an internal customer-service center. In contrast, the commission’s contract with Pearson is for a two-year trial period at a cost of about $4.9 million. What’s more, Pierre says, the center’s operators will be paid the "prevailing wage rate," in addition to receiving training in interpersonal skills, EEOC content, phone etiquette and stress management.

After an evaluation of the center’s operations, the EEOC will have the option of continuing the contract with Pearson for three additional years.

--Cindy Waxer

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