Looking Ahead at the EEOC

Issues of equal pay, harassment, age discrimination and pregnancy discrimination are all squarely on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's radar, says Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic in a new interview.

By Allison Uehling

A new administration and leadership changes at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have left federal EEO practitioners wondering how their work and job security will be impacted. In an interview with cyberFEDS® at the EEOC's EXCEL Conference, Acting Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Victoria Lipnic, talked about her interests, the EEOC's relationship with federal agencies and what might happen in the future.

General priorities

Lipnic said that she is particularly interested in equal pay issues, age discrimination and following up on the June 2016 report by the EEOC's Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. She noted that the commission is working on guidance for addressing harassment and characterized all the comments it has received in connection with the effort as "incredibly useful." With regard to any disparaging workplace remarks about religion, nationality, or other protected bases, she observed that employers are entitled to have codes of conduct and that they shouldn't be reluctant to enforce them. Training on harassment doesn't necessarily have to change the minds of those who receive it, she said, but it should be clear that employees must comply with the training in order to keep their jobs.

She said that pregnancy discrimination will continue to be a priority as well, noting that "so much of what we see is blatant." She foresees a continuation of discussions about accommodation and pregnancy.

Lipnic also said she would like to explore how the EEOC can play a larger role in connecting people to jobs by looking at job barriers, including how and where employers are advertising and recruiting.

The EEOC and federal agencies

With regard to federal agencies, Lipnic said the big challenges are harassment, race discrimination and age discrimination. She noted that federal workers tend to be older and she would like to highlight the value of older workers, including that they "tend to be more secure" and have longer tenures. Although succession planning is lawful, she cautioned that agencies must be careful about deciding not to hire older applicants because, for example, of unfounded concerns about their technological abilities. She hopes that the EEOC will be able to issue guidance regarding age discrimination issues before the end of the year.

Lipnic also thinks federal agencies should focus on the recruitment of individuals with disabilities. She recognized the progress being made in this area, but recommended a continued commitment.

Asked about federal EEO practitioners who are concerned about their jobs in the face of possible budget cuts, Lipnic said that she thinks EEO is "pretty institutionalized as a core value for federal agencies." She noted that the appropriations cycle is very long, and advised practitioners to keep their focus on their work and then see what happens.

Asked if she would like to convey a message to the federal EEO community, Lipnic said she has worked as a federal employee and she has "tremendous respect" for the federal workforce, which she characterized as "pretty amazing" and "ahead of the curve in many ways." She noted that the federal sector is different from the private sector in that the EEOC is a partner with other federal agencies in advancing EEO, preventing discrimination, and working toward being a model for diversity and inclusion.

"We all have to be open to new ideas and better ways to do things," such as pilot projects, she said, but it's important to remember that "we're all trying to advance the same goal."

Although she is grateful that the EEOC wasn't subject to a budget cut in FY 2017, she said it is working on a reorganization plan as ordered by the Office of Management and Budget.

"People shouldn't presume reorganization means staffing cuts," she said, adding that efficiencies can be achieved, especially with a move toward more digitalization. She said the EEOC is constantly looking at data in an effort to more effectively manage the resources it has.

LGBT discrimination and Title VII

In recent years, the EEOC's position on Title VII coverage has evolved, and it has concluded that claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should be processed as claims of sex discrimination in the administrative process. See Baldwin v. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, 0120133080,115 LRP 31813 (EEOC OFO 2015) and Macy v. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,112 LRP 20796 , EEOC No. 0120120821 (EEOC 2012).

Even with the change in administration, Lipnic said that the EEOC will continue to advocate its position, but that, as a legal matter, "this is not a settled area of the law." That means much will depend on how U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal rule and then, ultimately, whether the Supreme Court takes up the issue.

Changes at the EEOC

President Trump recently nominated Janet Dhillon for chair of the EEOC. Former Chair Jenny Yang will leave the commission on Sept. 1, setting the stage for another appointment that will change the makeup of the commission to a Republican majority. Lipnic noted that President Trump also will have the opportunity to appoint a new general counsel. She said that when the balance shifts, "priorities might shift."

Allison Uehling, Esq., is cyberFEDS® EEO special projects editor. Send questions or comments about this story to hreletters@lrp.com.

 

Jul 13, 2017
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