WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government spent at least $866 million during the 1990s investigating and settling a growing number of federal employee complaints alleging discrimination and other mistreatment, an Associated Press review of government records shows.
Employee complaints are on the rise even while the federal work force is shrinking. Employment experts say government workers are bigger complainers than private sector employees because they’re more sensitive about their rights and more aware of how to use the government’s multi-layered redress system.
``We’ve made it very easy for people to complain,″ said Nancy Vollertsen, a Minneapolis attorney practicing employment law.
Downsizing seems to have contributed to the complaints. Between 1990 and 1997, the government’s civilian payroll fell from 3.1 million to 2.8 million, increasing competition for jobs and complaints from those laid off. Other causes include greater sensitivity to discrimination, changes in the law and a multilayered grievance process that doesn’t exist at private companies.
Private firms also get worker complaints. But in studying 10 years of complaints, the Senior Executive Association, a federal managers group, said government employees file seven times as many complaints as workers at private companies.
Walter Thomas filed a complaint contending the State Department unfairly denied him job assignments because he is black. ``The system accepts blacks as long as they stay in positions and never rise to the top,″ Thomas said.
His case evolved into a class-action lawsuit for black foreign service officers that took 10 years and $3.8 million to settle. The 1996 agreement also included costs more difficult to tally _ promotions for some officers and diversity training.
The AP review of federal records found that from 1990 through 1997, the government spent $378 million on counselors, judges and investigators who handle complaints.
An additional $488 million went to employees who won compensation awards ranging from a few thousand dollars to millions for class-action lawsuits.
No single agency tracks all worker complaints or costs. The AP reviewed documents from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Merit System Protection Board, the U.S. Special Counsel and the Treasury Department Judgment Fund. But many hidden costs, such as confidential financial settlements, couldn’t be calculated.
Evidence of the upward trend:
_Civil rights complaints rose 70 percent, from 17,000 cases in 1990 to nearly 29,000 cases in 1997, a preliminary EEOC report indicates.
_EEOC figures show twice as many employees appealed decisions in 1997 than they did in 1991.
_The number of workers appealing layoffs to the Merit System Protection Board rose from 726 in 1996 to 1,126 one year later.
In 1997, one-fifth of the allegations in EEOC complaints concerned racial discrimination, mostly toward blacks. But whites filed about one-fourth of the race cases, alleging reverse discrimination.
``There are some people who just haven’t gotten the message″ despite years of affirmative action programs, said Melodee Stith, the Interior Department’s equal opportunity director.
Some critics contend affirmative action programs increase tensions and encourage complaints.
``As long as the government pursues race- or gender-based hiring policies, you are going to end up offending someone,″ says George Nesterczuk, staff director of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee’s civil service panel.
Preliminary EEOC figures for 1997 showed agencies made an official finding of discrimination in only 359, or 4 percent, of the 8,728 discrimination cases decided by federal agencies. But more than 6,000 other cases were resolved with corrective action.
Experts attribute some of the rise in discrimination complaints to a 1991 law enabling federal employees to seek compensatory damages of up to $300,000 in such cases and to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
Not all employees prevail. Mail carrier Pamela Heintzelman claimed disability discrimination after the Postal Service fired her, alleging she misrepresented a back injury that kept her from working full hours. Postal investigators had videotaped Heintzelman, who raises Australian shepherd dogs, running and bending at several dog shows while on paid leave.
Heintzelman said those activities were not the type of repetitive movement that hurts her back. She lost in court, but her union helped her return to the Postal Service as a clerk.
The government is trying to reduce complaints.
The EEOC has proposed ways to streamline complaints processing and develop mediation programs.
In 1990, Congress authorized federal agencies to use alternative dispute resolution, a mediation method popular in the private sector. More than 40 agencies are trying it.
Officials at the Postal Service, source of the most complaints, say employee complaints recently fell by 77 percent in three regions offering mediation.