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Report finds 'failure' in Social Security discrimination complaint process

Minority GroupsU.S. Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionDiscriminationElijah E. CummingsFootball

The Social Security Administration has failed to establish an adequate process for handling discrimination claims from employees and has sparked concerns about conflicts of interest in some of those cases, according to a scathing federal report obtained Thursday by The Baltimore Sun.

Auditors at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing workplace discrimination laws, said the agency failed to follow regulations when handling complaints, manipulated data to boost case completion rates and created the impression that managers had intruded into what should have been impartial investigations.

Of 2,292 complaints processed over a four-year period, not one resulted in a finding of discrimination, according to the report.

The report identified widespread failures in handling complaints at the Woodlawn-based agency — one of the region's largest employers — and prompted an outcry from some members of the state's congressional delegation. Social Security employs 64,000 people, including about 11,000 in Maryland.

"The EEOC report identifies a top-down failure on SSA's part to have a structure in place for the proper handling" of complaints, Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote in a letter Thursday to the agency's acting commissioner. It was also signed by Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, fellow Democrats.

Cummings added later, "My constituents expect the Social Security Administration to take every available step to prevent discrimination from occurring in the workplace and to ensure that any allegations of discrimination are handled quickly and fairly. These findings are unacceptable, and Social Security should immediately implement the recommendations that are clearly needed to strengthen every facet of its Equal Employment Opportunity program."

LaVenia J. LaVelle, national spokeswoman for the agency, said, "Social Security is committed to ensuring the equality of employment opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, military service, political affiliation, or any other non-merit factor, as well as handling complaints of discrimination in compliance with all applicable laws."

In a written response to the report, agency officials acknowledged some problems but disputed many of the EEOC's findings. Alan Frank, an associate commissioner overseeing equal opportunity at the agency, repeatedly wrote that the EEOC had not presented enough evidence to support some of the claims.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents many of the agency's workers, could not be reached for comment.

Social Security, which serves nearly 57 million beneficiaries, has been operating without a confirmed commissioner since Michael J. Astrue left early last year and the White House has declined to say when — or whether — President Barack Obama will nominate a replacement.

Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin, a former Maryland state official, has received praise for leading the agency through a period of congressionally mandated budget reductions, but outside experts have said the agency would be better served by a Senate-confirmed leader.

The nearly two-year-long EEOC evaluation found that top managers of the agency's equal employment opportunity program previously worked in the general counsel's office, which is responsible for defending the agency against discrimination claims.

"We find that a majority of … employees interviewed expressed concerns about the general counsel office's involvement during the EEO investigation process and perceived the involvement as a conflict of interest," according to the report. "We continue to note that the investigative process is a non-adversarial fact-finding process."

Auditors also suggested that Social Security managers reviewed and made changes to affidavits by employees in the early stages of investigations. The EEOC said it reviewed testimony that appeared to have changed between the time it was initially given by an employees and then signed.

Social Security disputed the claim in its formal response.

The report "does not contain any actual evidence supporting the assertion that ... attorneys made substantive changes to managers' affidavits and forced agency managers to change their affidavits," the agency wrote.

The EEOC found that the agency was slow in dealing with complaints, often missing the target of 180 days from time of receipt to finish an investigation. In the fiscal year that ended in 2012, the agency showed an 82 percent on-time completion rate. But by the following year, that rate had dropped to 40 percent.

And, according to interviews with employees conducted by the EEOC, the agency sometimes attempted to make those rates look better than they actually were. "Several … employees stated that when the report of investigation is untimely, some … managers move the case file to the next fiscal year to look timely, and that they manipulate the data in the … tracking system," the report reads.

In response, the agency said it recognized that it has "had challenges with … timeliness." It did not directly address the allegation that officials had attempted to manipulate completion rates but said the practice, if it ever did occur, ended with a new office director who began in 2012.

"At the very beginning of his tenure in 2012, he told ... staff that if they had been delaying closing cases to make them look timelier or closing investigations even if they were not adequate, they were to stop immediately," according to the agency's written response.

Cummings, whose district includes the agency's headquarters, said he believes there are steps Social Security can take almost immediately to address some of the problems. One would be to have the associate commissioner who handles equal employment opportunities to report directly to the acting commissioner, as is required by EEOC regulations. At Social Security, that person reports to an intermediary.

The agency argued in its written response that its structure provides "meaningful access to our agency head" and that other agencies handle the hierarchy the same way.

"We do not believe this is an acceptable response," Cummings wrote in the letter. "Ensuring that the head of the EEOC program reports to the head of SSA is one of the simplest steps SSA can take to comply with the … regulations."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Minority GroupsU.S. Equal Employment Opportunity CommissionDiscriminationElijah E. CummingsFootball
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