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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission turned 35 years old on July 2, but its relevance is as strong as ever, according to the agency’s chairwoman, Ida L. Castro. For years, critics complained that the EEOC — which was once headed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a black conservative who opposes affirmative action and racial quotas — was marked by inefficiency and lack of public confidence. Now a new trend is unfolding. In the year and a half since taking the helm, Castro, who is the agency’s first Latina chairwoman, has overseen significant reforms at the agency. Last year, the number of backlogged charges fell to 40,234, a 15-year low, and down from a peak of 111,345 stalled charges in 1995. The EEOC also reduced its processing time for charges by 45 days, to 265 days. And it nearly tripled the number of successful resolutions through mediation to 4,833, up from 1,631 in 1998 and 830 in 1997. In an interview with the New York Law Journal, Ms. Castro spoke about the changes she has made and what she envisions for the future, both at the agency and in the workplace. [The interview has been edited.] Q: How did you accomplish the recent reforms at the EEOC? It’s a combination of determination, staff support and additional resources. I was lucky that when I came on board, I did so with a budget increase of $37 million. It’s extremely helpful to come in not just with a clear-cut vision but also with the wherewithal to get the job done. I think that our commitment to bringing all of our stakeholders in as partners in our endeavors also helped result in the record year we enjoyed. It’s a holistic approach. We didn’t leave any rock unturned. The comprehensive approach that we initiated last year paid off in fabulous results. Q: How does the comprehensive approach work? Traditionally the EEOC functioned in a bifurcated manner. We had our enforcement efforts on one side and our litigation efforts on the other and the process was somewhat linear. The comprehensive approach brings together all of our talents and applies them to identify priority cases at the earliest possible point. Rather than investing federal dollars in charges that do not fit the priority criteria or ultimately would not even pan out as an effective lawsuit, we now look at the charge the minute it comes in. If it fits the priority criteria, then our lawyers and investigators will jointly develop a strategy on how to investigate and pursue the charge. The quality and effectiveness of the investigation are better and it is clear to all parties that should a matter not be successfully resolved, we will go to court. It motivates parties to look at the issues more openly and reach agreement prior to that point. Charging parties understand that we are being far more assertive and effective in our investigations. Employers understand that we will pursue those charges that have merit rather than pursuing anything that comes through the door. When we do go to court, our success rate has increased ten-fold. Q: What criteria does the agency use in determining whether a charge warrants priority status? When a charge comes in, an investigator determines whether it is a priority as stated in our National Enforcement Plan, which includes claims involving egregious discrimination, systemic pattern or practice of discrimination, or an underserved community. This system allows us to classify these cases as “A,” “B” and “C,” “A” being our top priority, “B” being cases that appear to state a claim except that the information given requires a lot of investigation and government resources, and “C” being charges that are administratively closed because they don’t state a claim, they’re untimely or we are otherwise unable to pursue them. We can close these cases rather quickly because we no longer have to fully investigate them. By implementing this process, we were able to get rid of all the cases that had no merit. However, we were then left with a workload of cases falling mostly under “A” and “B.” To get our arms around this workload, we did two things. First, we hired more investigators. Second, we established the national early mediation program. We refer all the “B” charges to the mediation program. Sixty-five percent of the mediated charges are successfully resolved. And over 90 percent of the time, both employers and charging parties tell us that they would recommend mediation or use it again should the need arise. Q: One of your goals has been improving the EEOC’s relationship with the business community. Why do you consider this important and what have you done? When I came on board, it was clear to me that there was a communication problem between the EEOC and the community it regulates. The challenge was how to improve communications without giving any impression whatsoever that you intend to compromise your enforcement responsibilities. I asked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Society for Human Resource Managers and the National Employers Council to tell us what we could do to establish a dialogue so that we could understand each other better. Sixty to 70 percent of our charges come from the small business sector, so it behooves us to make sure that these business owners who don’t have the human resources capabilities of the larger corporations know their responsibilities so they can abide by them rather than our playing the “gotcha” game, because all that does is increase my workload. After that meeting, I rolled out a Small Business Initiative. We’ve increased our technical assistance and education, revamped our Web site, established contact persons and reissued everything in layperson’s language so people can actually understand us. All this increases the opportunity for self-compliance. I truly believe that most employers don’t wake up every morning trying to figure out how to discriminate. The real issue is understanding what is required of you, and once you understand that, more often than not, you will comply with the law. Q: What were your expectations upon taking the helm of the EEOC, and did they differ from what you found? I thought that most of my time would be dedicated to the difficult questions posed by the new workplace, such as cash balance pension plans and conversions. But in addition to that — and alarmingly so — we have also been dealing with the kinds of charges that I think the American people, myself included, truly believed that we had left behind. For example, in the last 10 years, racial, national origin and sexual harassment charges have doubled or tripled. Retaliation charges have quadrupled in the last 20 years, and exploded particularly in the last five years. In the last six months, we filed seven lawsuits in which African Americans were abused and threatened specifically with the use of nooses. It is happening largely in the low-wage-earner-type industries, where people are getting paid minimum or less than minimum wages, but it also happens across the board. As we turn 35, we can’t be permitted to go backward in our history, and that’s what we are seeing. Q: Are there particular challenges that larger employers face? Larger employers need to realize that there has been a large influx of new workers who were not even born when the civil rights laws were passed, and bring with them whatever it is they learned in their community environment. If we see a rise in hate crimes, it will follow that in the workplace we will see similar issues because people don’t leave their beliefs at the door. It is our responsibility that everyone understands that whatever policies are in place are not just bookshelf policies. We are seeing that discrimination like a bad weed will come back up. Q: What would you like to see next for the agency? Primarily, I’d like to secure the agency’s financial standing. The president has understood that we have moved in the right direction at a very rapid pace and has requested a 14 percent increase in our appropriation. This increase would allow me to fully restore the mediation program, continue to reduce the backlog, and commit resources to cutting-edge issues. Q: On a personal note, what inspired you to get involved in civil rights work? I am the daughter of a garment worker and a jack-of-all-trades who migrated separately to this great city back in the 30s, speaking only Spanish and wearing only the clothes on their backs. This was a time where immigrants were offered hostility and rejection. My parents instilled in my brother and me two things. One, to firmly believe in the American dream, that we were equal to everyone and second to none. Two, that education was the bridge to success, so that we would be saved from the obstacles and the pain they were forced to go through. Throughout my career, I have known what it was like to be passed over for promotions, although many times it was unclear whether it was because I was a woman or Puerto Rican or both. I know what it is like to do three times the amount of work with 10 times the quality of the work of a male co-worker, and get paid half. I know what it is like to have to raise your daughter, work and go to school and not have a fallback position so that you are unable to risk exercising your federal rights because there is too much at stake. I know how hard it is for people to come forward, and I hold them in high regard. I come from a very hard-working family and saw the wasted talent due to lack of opportunity. I have always been committed to opening doors to make sure that people may live their life to the fullest. I could not be more grateful to the President and Vice President for giving me the opportunity to lead the agency responsible for eliminating from the workplace precisely those kinds of conditions that my parents and I were forced to face, and so that my daughter can have a better life and so that everybody’s daughters and sons can have a better life. It’s a wonderful job.

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