For fiscal year 2010, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 100,000 new private sector charges of employment discrimination--a record high and a jump of 7 percent over 2009, the agency reported.
The spike comes after a slight decline in 2009, when total charges fell 2.2 percent to 93,277 from a total of 95,402 charges in fiscal year 2008.
The latest level--of 99,922 for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2010--marks the third consecutive year over the 90,000 mark. According to historical charge data available on the EEOC website, charges reached a level of 91,189 in fiscal year 1994, but in more recent years charge levels hovered in the 75,000-to-80,000 range.
"Our FY 2010 charge receipt figures show that we have received more charges this year than in any of the prior 45 years of the agency's history," the EEOC said its Fiscal Year 2010 Performance and Accountability Report, first published on Nov. 15.
In spite of receiving a record number of charges, the federal agency said it reduced the inventory of pending claims in a press statement last week, attributing a dramatic slowing in the growth of the charge inventory to replenished ranks of EEOC workers and significant resources devoted to training.
The Nov. 23 press statement said that the EEOC ended fiscal year 2010 with 86,338 pending charges--an increase of only 570 charges, or less than 1 percent, compared to 2009, when the EEOC's pending inventory increased 15.9 percent over 2008.
The 7 percent rise in overall charges received prompted several different analyses of the reasons, including one from the agency itself.
"This surge...is due in part to the expanded statutory authorities that EEOC has been given with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008; the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008; and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009," the EEOC said in its Nov. 15 performance report.
"We also attribute the rise in charge receipts to EEOC becoming more accessible, making charge filing easier and providing better, more responsive customer service," the agency said, reporting on efforts to expand the agency's availability by phone, e-mail and increased walk-in hours at field offices for charge intake, as well as the issuance of "a plain language brochure to assist potential charging parties in understanding their rights and the EEOC charge process."
Providing an employment practices liability insurer's perspective, Eric Ross, claims manager for Beazley Group in Farmington, Conn., suggested that a shift in the mission under the Obama administration was another factor. Mr. Ross, speaking during a session of the international conference of the Minneapolis-based Professional Liability Underwriting Society earlier this month, said that the EEOC, under prior administrations, viewed its role as being geared to counseling employers about how to make their workplaces discrimination- and harassment-free.
The EEOC is now focused on educating workers [and] "breeding millions of discrimination investigators out there in the workforce," he said, stating that EEOC's educational website materials support his view.
This has "already manifested itself in terms of more for-cause findings of discrimination," and that, in turn, is driving "more frequent [and] higher conciliation demands by the EEOC. All that drives up losses," Mr. Ross said.In a message letter opening the EEOC's performance report, EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien commented on "missed opportunities for progress" in prior years.
"Despite the success of the EEOC and the equal employment gains of the past four decades, [our] resources have not always kept pace with our--and the nation's--enforcement needs. Between 2000 and 2008, the EEOC's staffing level was cut by nearly 25 percent, even as our enforcement authority expanded," she wrote.
"This reduction was not without consequence, resulting in missed opportunities for progress, a growing backlog of unresolved discrimination charges, and unnecessary uncertainty for both employers and workers awaiting guidance or resolution," she wrote.
Correction: The previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the EEOC had undergone a furlough program. It has since been brought to our attention that it was the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a California state agency, that has been furloughed.