Discrimination cases backlogged

July 12, 1997


Staff Writer

Susan, a 33-year-old Washington County woman, said a co-worker repeatedly asked her to perform sex acts, inquired if she had ever had sex with her brother and made other off-color remarks.

After weeks of asking that he stop and complaining to her supervisor, Susan, which is not her real name, said she finally reached the breaking point. The supervisor simply told her to avoid the man, she said, and the manager did nothing for months.

Meanwhile, she said the verbal assaults continued.

"He got pretty vulgar with some of that stuff," she said.

But with small children, Susan said she could not jeopardize her job. When the Washington County company transferred her to the first shift - which she said was retaliation for her complaints - she hired a lawyer. She said the company knew she could not work those hours because she needed to care for her children.


Susan filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, hoping for back wages and some vindication.

That was in April of 1996. Today, Susan is still waiting for a response.

"It's no wonder no one wants to report it," she said. "That's pretty sad. It's no wonder women won't go forward."

Susan found herself embroiled in a civil-rights bureaucracy that takes months - and sometimes years - to resolve complaints ranging from racial prejudice on the job to housing discrimination.

For the hundreds of Marylanders who file complaints each year, the wait can be interminable, according to advocates for victims of discrimination.

Investigators with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and its federal counterpart, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, say they are doing the best they can with limited resources.

In fiscal year 1996, 93 complaints were filed by Washington County residents, according the MCHR. That is up significantly from the 44 filed in fiscal year 1994, when the Western Maryland regional office in Hagerstown was reopened after being closed due to budget cuts, according to senior investigator Catherine A. Skaggs.

All those cases, plus ones filed by residents of other Western Maryland counties, are handled by one of two investigators, Skaggs said. She said the backlog in her office is running about two to three months.

"It's a tough one," she said. "It's all based on state agency funding. I don't think the backlog is too extreme."

The EEOC backlog is even worse. There were 1,744 cases in Maryland pending as of the end of May, said Issie L. Jenkins, district director of the EEOC in Baltimore.

Although that is down from an average of between 2,200 and 2,400 from 1991 to 1994, that still translates into about 14 to 15 months of inventory, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the office has been able to make progress despite departmental downsizing. She pointed to more efficient use of resources and a surging economy, which tends to dampen the number of discrimination complaints that people bring.

Still, she said the office is a long way from the 180-day timeframe mandated by the law.

"I think it will be a while before we get to that," she said.

Long wait for justice

Hans Goerl, an attorney who handles discrimination cases, said there are simply not enough investigators to ensure justice.

"The backlogs are too great," he said. "There are not enough resources devoted to back up the high-sounding political words that are in the statute."

Goerl also criticized a provision of the law that requires people to file with the MCHR or the EEOC before suing on their own. Complainants must obtain a "right-to-sue" statement before going to court on their own.

Skaggs said that keeps a lot of frivolous suits out of the courts, but Goerl said it puts victims in an undefined, uncomfortable limbo.

"I think our political leaders need to find a way to provide an effective forum so that people who have been victimized by sexual harassment can have their grievances heard," Goerl said.

On the state level, the backlog situation is actually much better than in the past, according to MCHR Executive Director Henry B. Ford. At one point in the 1980s, the office had 3,000 cases pending. Today, he said the number is about 1,100.

"We're in much better shape than the EEOC," Ford said. "We're putting out as many as we're taking in."

Still, he acknowledged that some cases take more than a year to resolve. And he said drastic budget cuts in 1992 have made staying on top of the cases difficult.

"We had conquered our backlog at that point and were thanked with massive budget cuts," he said.

One consequence of tight budgets and backlogs is that investigators search for quick settlements most of the time, some observers said.

Ford said the office finds probable cause in about 30 percent of the cases.

Of those, less than 50 end up in court, he said. In the rest, the complainant and respondent settle their dispute.

Jenkins, of the EEOC, said the agency began using volunteer mediators in May in an attempt to resolve cases more easily.

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