The nation’s top employment cops are looking forward to an extra $23 million to help tackle a growing problem: backlogged cases at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The 2010 omnibus appropriations bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 10 and by the Senate on Dec. 13, would funnel those additional millions to the EEOC to help the agency get a handle on more than 70,000 unresolved discrimination complaints.

The resource-starved EEOC recently saw a 35% jump in its backlog, from 54,970 cases in 2007 to 73,951 last year. The agency also saw a record number of discrimination complaints in 2008 — 95,402 — which was also a nearly 20% increase from 79,896 in 2007. Nearly two-thirds involved racial or gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, the agency has watched staffing levels shrink 25% in recent years, from 2,850 in 2001 to 2,150 in 2008. Currently the agency is hiring 200 new investigators.

According to former EEOC attorney Merrily Archer, now a management-side attorney and of counsel to the Denver office of Atlanta-based Fisher & Phillips, this is not a new problem for the agency. “Even under the Clinton administration when I worked there, the EEOC struggled with under-funding. It was not unusual for us to conduct depositions by telephone to avoid travel, to not have the money to retain experts,” she recalled. “We litigated our cases on a shoestring. Our furniture was hand-me-downs from the military and other federal agencies.”

Employment lawyers, meanwhile, are tired of watching EEOC cases languish for months — sometimes years. “We have some cases that are as old as two and three years,” said William Helfand, a partner in the Houston office of Chamberlain Hrdlicka who represents employers. “When it takes months or years for the EEOC to issue even a right-to-sue letter, the delay is detrimental to everyone involved.”

So at least for now, management-side lawyers aren’t sounding the alarm about greater scrutiny from a beefed-up EEOC. Helfand said, “Having investigators who have more time to actually look into these things and look into them more promptly — it’s in the best interest of the party whose position is correct.”

Jay Zweig, a partner in the Phoenix office of Bryan Cave, agreed, saying that companies are “very interested in moving this backlog of cases forward with the anticipation that most of them will be dismissed by the EEOC.”

Tresa Baldas can be contacted at