Employers Bracing for End-of-Year Surge in EEOC Complaints
With just eight weeks left on the federal governments 2012 fiscal calendar, employers are bracing for rapid-fire litigation from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Gerald Maatman Jr. , co-chair of Seyfarth Shaws complex discrimination litigation group, says the agency has entered the annual red zonea period when its lawsuits surge.
Its a countdown to the EEOCs end of the year, says Maatman.
In fiscal year 2011, the agency filed 175 of its 261 merits lawsuits on behalf of claimants (or 67 percent) when it was in the red zone, according to Maatman. On September 30 alonethe very last day of the fiscal yearthe EEOC issued discrimination complaints against 18 companies, including Safeway Inc. and The Finish Line Inc.
Does the EEOC expect to see the same level of red zone activity this year?
The agency wont post a preliminary tabulation of this years filings until sometime in October, but Seyfarths lawyers have been keeping an informal count based on EEOC press releases. Compared to this time last year, Maatman says filings appear to be on course with the 2011 numbers.
The EEOC is filing lots of lawsuits, he says. Maatman has been defending employers in EEOC cases for more than 30 years. More and more often, he says the agency is filing complaints alleging discrimination against groups of workers.
Like many public and private organizations faced with tightening budgets, the EEOC has been under pressure to do more with less. Last September, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $359 million agency budget for fiscal year 2012, which was $7.3 million less than it gave the EEOC the year before. Maatman says that the EEOC is making an effort to maximize its limited financial resourcesthe agency is focusing on bigger cases and targeting industry leaders and issues that impact many employers.
So how should employers in the EEOCs cross hairs react to contact from the agency?
Typically these complaints dont come as a surprise, says Maatman. But once an employee has filed a charge with the Commission, Maatman says its crucial the employer not waste any time in getting teams from HR and legal involved. When the EEOC is investigating, he says, its not a partner, its an adversary.
The best-case scenario, of course, is to resolve any discrimination claims before an employee goes to the EEOC. Many problems can be nipped in the bud, says Maatman.
If employers dont have robust internal controls in place to detect and deal with discrimination early, they should. Employers need to be monitoring the pulse of the workplace, notes Maatman. He recommends establishing complaint lines and having other policies that encourage employees to voice their concerns to the employer.
You want to get to the bottom of what happened before the employee feels aggrieved enough to march down to the EEOC, he says.