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Agency’s Job: Make the Workplace a Fair Place

Times Staff Writer

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency charged with protecting workers from discrimination.

Olophius E. Perry, director of the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, which covers Southern California and Nevada, explains that the agency’s mission has expanded over time.

Question: What is the role of the EEOC?

Answer: The agency is charged with enforcing Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments, from discriminating against employees based on their race, sex, color, national origin or religion.

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We also enforce three other federal laws. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 prohibits employers from discriminating against workers 40 years of age or older.

EEOC also enforces the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which requires workers who are performing the same or similar duties to be paid equally, without regard to the sex of the worker.

The more recent federal law that was passed is called the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 and prohibits employers from discriminating against an individual based on disability.

Q: If workers believe their employers have violated these laws, what should they do?

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A: People who believe they have been subjected to discrimination under these laws can call, write or visit our office in Los Angeles to seek more information or to file a complaint. [Information on the agency can be found at eeoc.gov or (800) 669-4000.]

Q: What is the process for filing a complaint?

A: A person who comes [into] our office would be interviewed by an investigator, who would accept the information and formalize the complaint. Once we have a formal complaint, we notify the employer of the complaint and invite their response.

Q: Does that begin the investigative process?

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A: I should add that before an investigation begins, we have the capability to attempt to resolve the complaint through mediation. The mediation service that we provide is free to the worker and the employer. The mediation is strictly confidential, and no information given during the mediation is passed on to our investigative staff if the mediation is unsuccessful.

Q: Is there any trend in the kinds of cases you’re seeing in your office?

A: Three types of complaints historically remain high in our total volume.

One type of complaint is allegations of race discrimination. A second is cases alleging sex discrimination, and a lot of those include sexual harassment.

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The third category is cases alleging retaliation. By that I mean workers tell us that they bring to their employer’s attention practices occurring at work that they think are unlawful. Rather than the employer looking into the matter brought by the worker, the worker receives some adverse employment action, such as firing the worker or denying the worker promotions or subjecting the worker to a layoff.

Federal law prohibits an employer from basing an employee action on a retaliatory motive.

Q: Which of the three categories receives the most complaints?

A: They’re pretty close. Race has historically led the pack. Since the mid-'80s, sexual harassment has grown in numbers and remains somewhat constant, and retaliation remains a problem.

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Q: Has your office seen an increase in complaints filed by teen workers?

A: Yes. We have, for the last several years, seen a rise in complaints filed by teen workers, and oftentimes the allegations relate to sexual harassment. Naomi Earp, our vice chair, created an initiative in September 2004 called the Youth at Work Initiative.

There’s a Youth at Work website: youth.eeoc.gov. It explains types of job discrimination young workers might encounter and suggests strategies that they can use to prevent and, if necessary, respond to such discrimination.

The second component of the initiative is free outreach events where EEOC staff will go to high school students, youth organizations and small businesses that employ young workers and offer information aimed at assisting the young workers as they enter the work environment.

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The third component is [when the] EEOC will partner with business leaders, human resource groups and industry trade organizations to

Q: What are some of the scenarios that young workers might encounter?

A: One of the scenarios we’ve seen is that women, young women, were being subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct by co-workers and often supervisors who would essentially prey on these young workers. The young workers didn’t know how to respond and often did not respond by complaining to our agency until they were severely emotionally distraught.

Their parents or older relatives may know about EEOC, but oftentimes young workers have never had occasion to hear or learn about our agency.

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Q: How do you define unwelcome sexual conduct?

A: Unwelcome sexual conduct includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, which unreasonably interferes with the person’s ability to work or which creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

A single request by a supervisor for a date may not constitute sexual harassment; repeated requests could. A comment about a female’s body parts or clothing, if it’s sexual in nature and if it is repeated, could constitute sexual harassment as well.

The first instance of touching a woman in a private place on her body is sexual harassment if the woman is trying to avoid it and has otherwise expressed that it’s unwelcome.

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Q: Do young workers feel they must tolerate such behavior to keep jobs?

A: Oftentimes it may be their first job. They are too frightened to complain because sometimes the person who’s committing the misconduct is their supervisor. I’ve heard cases where they’re reluctant to mention it to their parents.

Many of these cases involve industries that offer youths their first job.... These are fast food industry types and other service jobs.

Q: What can employers do to keep sexual harassment and other unlawful practices out of the workplace?

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A: If an employer is serious about keeping sexual harassment out of the workplace, having a policy and living by the policy is the right thing to do. The most crucial aspect of a policy is its widespread dissemination, and training.


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