EEOC banner

Why isn’t the government protecting employees from discrimination?

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Women and minorities who face workplace discrimination or harassment ordinarily receive vital legal services from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But in 2012, the EEOC cut this support in half without an adequate explanation. This unexplained drop-off hurts the most vulnerable employees; a large chunk of EEOC complaints deal with sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and other gender discrimination issues. The drop-off especially affects low-income women who are less able to afford lawyers and more likely to turn to the EEOC for help when they’re mistreated at work. 

In 1991, Anita Hill bravely testified about the sexual harassment she faced by her boss at the EEOC, Clarence Thomas. Her testimony captured America’s attention and informed women that being treated as sexual objects at work was against the law. As a result, the EEOC received 50 percent more sexual harassment complaints and provided an important space for women to assert their newfound rights. The EEOC plays in important role in vindicating the rights of employees and should be accountable to the demands of workers.

But in 2012, the EEOC suddenly slowed the pace of vindication. Although the EEOC typically sues 300-400 employers for discrimination and harassment per year, it sued only 155 in 2012. Enforcement dropped over fifty percent despite a steady number of employee complaints; between 2011 and 2012, employee complaints changed by less than one percent. And EEOC resolutions other than lawsuits, like informal negotiations with employers, also dropped during this time.

The EEOC has failed to explain this sudden drop-off.

In 2012, the EEOC said that it was making “more strategic and focused use” of its resources. But that would imply using fewer resources to obtain the same outcome; a claim belied by the facts. The amount of money that the EEOC recovered for victims of employment discrimination was also cut in half from 2011 to 2012. The EEOC isn’t doing as well with 50 percent fewer lawsuits, its doing 50 percent worse with 50 percent fewer lawsuits.

In 2013, when the EEOC brought even fewer lawsuits, the EEOC explained that budget sequestration reduced staff levels and forced them to pursue fewer lawsuits. But sequestration wouldn’t have affected EEOC lawsuits in 2012.

Even if we construct explanations for the EEOC, they fail. In 2011, the Supreme Court made it harder for women to bring discrimination lawsuits in Wal-Mart v. Dukes. When Betty Dukes sued on behalf of herself and other women working at Wal-Mart for gender discrimination in pay and promotions, the Court held that employees must be subject to the same discriminatory policy to bring a class action, or a group-based, lawsuit. But the EEOC relies on pattern-and-practice lawsuits, an alternative to class actions which still allow employees to sue as a group; and these types of cases make-up a very small part of the EEOC’s docket.

The right to thrive at work without facing discrimination or harassment because you’re a woman, or a person of color, or gay, or disabled, is essential. We define ourselves and support ourselves by our work. This fundamental right shouldn’t be explained away by irrelevant budget cuts or by “strategic” reallocation. The Obama administration should explain why the EEOC suddenly stopped vindicating the rights of employees and should promptly resume and grow efforts to protect these rights.

Claire Simonich is a second year Yale Law student where she is a board member of Yale Law Women. She previously advocated for women’s and worker’s rights as an aid worker in Guatemala, before federal court as a student intern in the Worker and Immigrant Rights, and she provided testimony for the Connecticut state legislature regarding domestic worker rights. She is an avid consumer of feminist and pop media including film, music, and writing.

Claire Simonich is a second year Yale Law student where she is a board member of Yale Law Women.

Read more about Claire

Join the Conversation