Inside EEOC’s New Portal
The jury is still out on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s public portal, according to legal experts.
After being piloted in five field offices last year – Charlotte, Chicago, New Orleans, Phoenix and Seattle – the EEOC’s public portal went live late last year. It enables individuals to submit online inquiries and requests for intake interviews, which are the first steps for filing discrimination charges. However, people can’t use the portal to file online complaints against federal agencies or submit discrimination charges that haven’t been prepared by the EEOC.
Likewise, people can digitally sign and file a charge that the EEOC prepared for them. Once filed, individuals can use the portal to provide and update their contact information, receive documents and messages related to their charge, agree to mediate the charge and check on the status of their charge. Others can review their charge filed on or after Jan. 1, 2016, that are currently in investigation or mediation.
The federal agency responded to more than 550,000 calls to its toll-free numbers and more than 140,600 inquiries in field offices in fiscal year 2017. It believes the online system will create more efficiency for both the agency and public since it reduces the processing time and expense of paper submissions.
“We do not expect the portal to increase the number of charges filed with us, because a human-to-human interaction is preserved as part of the process,” says Martin S. Ebel, director, EEOC’s field management programs in Houston. “We do expect it to drive inquiries to the digital system and away from in-person, telephone and other traditional inquiry methods.”
By being able to review potential charges prior to speaking with individuals who filed them, Ebel says, investigators can conduct “sharply focused interviews” and draft better charges of discrimination when someone takes the next step and files a charge of discrimination.
While it’s too soon to determine the portal’s success, this “instantaneous” system might discourage employees from resolving discrimination problems in-house, says Mellissa Schafer, an attorney at Hinshaw & Culbertson law firm in Los Angeles.
She points to a disgruntled employee who gets into a disagreement with his boss. The employee can immediately access the portal to start the complaint process instead of cooling off, sharing his feelings with coworkers and then notifying HR.
“This might be something where the employer and employee can work it out in the next day or two and everyone calms down, everything is fine,” she says. “This employee may be somebody who is overheated quickly, gets very anxious or excited quickly and may turn to emotion versus thinking about it, processing it and taking time to do something.”
The portal also has the potential of being prejudicial to employers, Schafer says. It prevents EEOC officers from taking into account the person’s tone, demeanor or mannerisms when evaluating their allegations. In some cases, she says online claims would never pass the initial steps if the same complaints were made in person or over the phone. In the end, some employers may end up wasting valuable time defending bogus charges.