New EEOC Director Has L.A. Office Moving Again : Leonora Guarraia’s Style Has Fired Up Some, Turned Off Others

Times Staff Writer

Leonora Guarraia remembers, as a congressional aide in the ‘60s, crossing a Capitol Hill street one night after a late vote on the Senate floor and realizing she was walking between Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. All she could think was, “There’s no one here to see me!”

More recently, as a lifelong Washingtonian transplanted to Los Angeles, she walked onto a tennis court and recognized a player on the next court as Gavin MacLeod, captain of “The Love Boat.” All she could think was, “There’s no one here to see me!”

Culture Shock

Guarraia, who arrived six months ago to take over as district director for the beleaguered Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had her first brush with L.A. culture shock when she took her Welsh terrier, Vickie, which she describes as “a very laid-back Eastern dog,” to the groomer. Seeing a schnauzer client with a furry tuft marring an otherwise immaculately coiffed flank, Guarraia inquired whether the poor dog had a growth. Heavens, no, replied the groomer--"Those are designer initials.”


An architect’s daughter from what she describes as “one of those small, warm and wonderful Italian families (two children),” Guarraia grew up in McLean, Va., a Washington bedroom community, entered Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia as a drama major, later switching to political science, and on graduation did the predictable ‘60s thing: she married a Marine Corps officer.

“I was not career minded,” she said. But the marriage lasted only a year, whereupon she resumed her maiden name, went home and “started walking the halls of Congress” in search of a job. Luck was on her side. Guarraia stopped by the office of Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, then the Republican minority leader. It happened his secretary had just resigned. “I walked in and got the job on the spot,” Guarraia said, “and I’ve never looked for a job since.” Not a registered voter, she went out and registered Republican.

She worked for seven years on Capitol Hill as a special assistant to Scott and on the staff of former GOP Rep. Gilbert Gude of Maryland--both of whom she described as “liberal Republicans"--before taking a leave of absence to enroll in graduate school at the University of Georgia.

The master’s degree is still in limbo (she has yet to write her thesis) but she was offered a management job at the U.S. Civil Service Commission, an agency since replaced by the Office of Personnel Management. For a woman who thrives on the challenge of “getting something operating the way it should operate,” it was the real beginning of a career in government.

During the first Reagan Administration she took a job as executive officer of the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, where the team included Clarence Thomas as assistant secretary of education. After Thomas was chosen by President Reagan as EEOC chairman in 1982, he asked Guarraia to come on board as director of the Office of Program Research at headquarters.

There, she proclaimed that all directors ought to do a stint in the field. So, when Thomas was seeking a new director for the leaderless Los Angeles district office (whose jurisdiction reaches from Bakersfield to the Mexican border and includes all of Nevada), he chose Guarraia. She welcomed the challenge--"I had hit 40,” she said, “and wanted a change.”

And, she added, pausing to light a cigarette, “I had a reputation as a tough manager.”

It was, perhaps, a hallmark of the Guarraia style that on a recent Wednesday EEOC celebrated the agency’s 20th anniversary with a party for friends and media at the district’s new, upscale mid-Wilshire headquarters. There was wine, soft drinks, copious hors d’oeuvres and birthday cake. And, Guarraia pointed out, the party didn’t cost taxpayers a penny.

Guarraia and staff chipped in, she said, on a voluntary basis. She wanted the party to make a statement: “Hey, look at us, we’re from EEOC and we’re proud of it. We’re professionals, just like a law staff.”

“Bright, energetic, innovative"--those were the words chosen by William A. Webb, one of the five EEOC commissioners, to describe her. Webb, on a recent visit here, held a news conference during which he called Guarraia’s appointment “indicative of the high sense of obligation we have to professionalize the work force.”

When she arrived in March, the district had been without a permanent director for three months; since 1979, there had been three directors and two acting directors. In 1984, there was the embarrassment of a sexual harassment suit filed by 11 female employees against a male administrator in the watchdog agency.

“There was a morale factor,” she said. “They didn’t seem to be getting on with the business at hand.” In short, she said, things were in “a state of disrepair.”

By way of repairing them, she let district personnel (who now number about 100) know that “they were in deep trouble if they didn’t prove the money was being well spent” and that she “expected them to give the public an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

One problem, as Guarraia perceived it, was that there was no strong voice speaking out “to get resources diverted to this office. If there’s no one here to fight for that, the office just kind of languishes.” She said she is in a position to go to the well in Washington for whatever is needed to handle the district caseload, which now averages 3,100 to 3,500 discrimination charges filed each year.

No-Nonsense Approach

Guarraia acknowledged that not everyone on her staff has been fired-up by her aggressive, no-nonsense approach. “I guess maybe I’ve lost 20 people,” she said, “by mutual agreement.” She is methodically replacing them with “new people who really believe in the mission of the agency.”

When she took over, Guarraia said, the average case was taking 10 months just to reach the preliminary investigation stage. Today, she said, it has been trimmed to six weeks and “my goal is to get it down to less than a month.”

Guarraia, a 1981 graduate of Harvard University’s six-week senior managers in government program, is a budget-minder who doesn’t “believe in just pouring more money out there and building up a kingdom. I think you tend to work harder, and a little smarter, with less.” The Reagan Administration’s attitude toward EEOC, she said, is, “Let’s reign it in and get it under control and then decide how to move forward.” (By contrast, she said, the Carter Administration was “dedicated” to the cause of fighting discrimination “but thought the answer was pouring more resources into the problem.”)

She emphasized, “I have never heard anything coming out of this Administration that supports the allegation that they want to do away with civil rights.”

Considerable skepticism has been voiced of late about how good a job EEOC has been doing and, in fact, whether the agency, under the aegis of a conservative Republican administration, is being discouraged from performing its task too well.

On the first count, Guarraia said, “I think they’re right to be skeptical. We’ve dropped the ball a few times.” (In the district, only a dozen or so cases went to court in 1984).

But, she reiterated, “I haven’t personally seen any indication that there is a dismantling or a doing away with civil rights. I’ve seen tightening up and better management techniques.”

EEOC, with 3,000 employees and an annual budget of $100 million-plus, is not one of the federal agencies whose budget was slashed by presidential direction, she pointed out. EEOC did, in fact, get increased funding but, she said, “We did suffer some cuts generated out of the House of Representatives.”

The district office is operating with an annual budget of $140,000, which covers travel, transportation costs and minor purchases but not salaries, major operating expenses and rent, which are paid by headquarters. Guarraia’s salary, which she said is “in the mid-60s,” is also paid by headquarters.

Chairman Thomas, a black who is a former Monsanto Corp. attorney, has been accused by some, including Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles) of the House Education and Labor Committee, of trying to “emasculate our civil rights act.”

(Of 66,000 cases of job bias reported to the commission in 1983, 2,162 were found to be actual violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and could not be settled out of court, yet 1,824 of those languished without action. Thomas has said the commission’s 300 lawyers will double their caseloads to take care of these and new cases).

Guarraia said Thomas is “committed to enforcing the law. I’ve never seen him do anything less than that. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything that comes out of Washington. I don’t. He doesn’t require a bunch of ‘yes’ people working for him. I’ve never been asked to do anything I felt I couldn’t do in good conscience.”

She denies that EEOC, as some have charged, is holding hands with big business with the blessings of the Reagan Administration. One of the safeguards against this, she said, is the agency’s voluntary assistance program, which brings businesses and the agency together four times a year for two-day seminars geared to explaining to businesses their rights, and their obligations, under the law.

“Most questions,” she said, “are in the areas of sexual harassment and pregnancy (benefits). They want to know, ‘How far do we have to go? What do we have to do?’ We say, ‘If you do x, y and z, we’ll come and get you. You have a right to fire and to discipline. You also have an obligation to follow the law.’ ”

William Webb said here that the EEOC’s goal is to double the number of cases that go to court this year and, in 1986, to “quadruple” them. “I don’t think any commission in the past 20 years has done enough,” he said. (The NAACP picketed during Webb’s visit).

Some have charged that EEOC has chosen to target “nickel-and-dime” cases instead of bringing broad class-action suits where discrimination allegedly pervades an entire company, thus causing the ‘70s logjam and bringing about only piecemeal improvements in hiring and promotion policies.

Guarraia said, “It is our view that individual cases are just as worthy as class-action suits. Our policy is to go for full relief and to litigate any case where we have found discrimination and where the negotiation process has failed. Who are we to say (someone) is not worth our time? It’s going to be very unproductive for a company to think we’re a paper tiger,” to try to escape with a couple of hundred dollars’ payment to a plaintiff, a sort of “nuisance fee.”

As the agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EEOC fights discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.

“The biggest increase (in charges filed) is in the area of age,” Guarraia said.

Latinos have shown hostility toward the EEOC, feeling they have been slighted while rights of blacks were placed first, and, she acknowledged, “Perhaps this office has not been as sensitive to the Hispanic community as it should be. I’m doing the best I can to change that.” There are now branch offices in East Los Angeles and Santa Fe Springs. And Guarraia is looking for qualified bilingual staff.

In general, she said, there is a decrease in cases filed on the basis of race discrimination. She concludes from this, “I guess discrimination has become more sophisticated.”

Today, she said, “We’re finding all kinds of people are allowed to get into the work force. The real question is, how do they proceed? Are blacks and females given the same opportunity to proceed up the corporate ladder? That’s where the discrimination comes in. The real answer may not be requiring numbers at entry level but looking at training and job descriptions.

“The first step opens the door. The next step provides training so everybody who has the ability to do the job can get the job. We’re moving into a new era where discrimination is more sophisticated and we have to move to other methods of dealing with the problem.”

That, she said, means “getting a better trained staff on board in order to compete with business. The corporate world is very sophisticated.

Guarraia thinks one solution to the EEOC “credibility gap” will be to win a few big suits. In late August, the commission filed a complaint against Knudsen Dairy Corp. of Los Angeles in U.S. District Court, alleging discrimination against a class of female job applicants.

The commission, in its first decision on the comparable worth issue, voted in June to reject the concept (which relies on comparison of the intrinsic value of dissimilar jobs) as a means of determining job discrimination, concluding that the theory is not covered under Title VII.

Guarraia said the consensus was that comparable worth is a social issue that needs further study. She pointed out that EEOC does handle the equal pay issue in sex discrimination wage cases.

“I don’t think there’s a real good definition of what comparable worth really is,” she said. If we at EEOC find the jobs are segregated, then we do have jurisdiction and we do investigate. If we have secretarial versus groundskeepers and they’re paid differently and they’re sex segregated, we do handle those cases but we don’t call it comparable worth.”

Guarraia lit a cigarette and pondered a question about her own future. “I get a kick out of seeing things come together,” she said. When everything is running well, she added, “I have a tendency to look around and see what the next challenge is.” She smiled and said, “I’m an Aquarian so I don’t really have a lot of time for nonsense.”