GPO Sees a Surge of Discrimination Complaints

Posted June 17, 2009 at 5:56pm

The Government Printing Office has been around for almost 150 years, beginning as a largely blue-collar agency with employees who spent their days on the printing press floor.

The agency has gone through a flurry of change over the past decade, with technological advances shifting more and more workers from printing presses to computer screens.

But along with those changes, the agency has experienced a growing number of discrimination complaints.

As of March, the agency had 40 “active— formal complaints from fiscal 2009, according to a summary provided by the agency to House appropriators. In March 2008, that number was 16.

Most complaints accuse officials of racial discrimination for denying pay increases or promotions. Among those, the vast majority are filed by black employees.

GPO officials have so far been unable to fully explain the increase. In a summary analysis for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, officials hypothesized that “heightened awareness— of the Equal Employment Opportunity process was to blame.

“Over the past year or so GPO has publicized a lot of information about the process and procedures for filing a complaint,— officials wrote.

But the high numbers still have some Members concerned. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed a legislative branch spending bill with a provision directing the agency to “take aggressive steps to ensure discriminatory behaviors are not tolerated in the workplace.—

Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has repeatedly questioned the number of complaints. Public Printer Robert Tapella, she said recently, needs to develop a plan to decrease the onslaught.

“There are an extraordinary number of complaints week after week,— she said after a recent subcommittee hearing. “And it hasn’t changed.—

Under the spending bill provision, Tapella would have to submit quarterly reports to the Appropriations Committee on the progress of decreasing EEO complaints and explain “the reasons for progress made or lack thereof.—

Some of the complaints filed in fiscal 2009 show a pattern. For example, 21 of the 40 cases active as of March came from the same “work unit,— with employees complaining of performance standards, staffing shortages and position descriptions, among other things.

“Most of these issues were resolved informally by management,— GPO officials wrote in their summary analysis. “Nevertheless, the employees opted to file formal complaints of discrimination.—

Spokesman Gary Somerset acknowledged the recent increase but pointed out in an e-mail that “there have not been any findings of discrimination issued by the agency or the EEOC.—

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rarely rules against an agency, and GPO has seen a steady, though small, stream of employees take their cases to the courts. Five discrimination lawsuits are pending, with three filed in the past year alone.

The most recent was filed in October by Sonita Walker, who accuses the agency of race, sex and disability discrimination for not allowing her sick leave. The agency is requesting a summary judgment.

Another recent case involves Kevin Hariston, who has worked at the agency for more than 20 years. He accuses officials of denying him a promotion because he’s African-American.

But Somerset pointed out in an e-mail that “there has not been any increase in the number of settlement agreements entered into which could infer some merit to the claims raised in these complaints.—

Allison Brown is one of those who reached a settlement with the agency, after more than three years of fighting for the same pay and treatment as a male colleague. In 2007, she was the seventh woman in a year to file a discrimination lawsuit. Of those, only the lawsuit of Denise Colbert and Sheron Minter is still pending; the two claim they were passed over for promotions because of their race and gender.

Somerset said the agency has been working to fight discrimination by distributing information on the agency’s EEO program and initiating focus groups, among other things.

“GPO takes every complaint filed seriously,— he said. “One EEO complaint is one too many.—