House GOP chastise equal employment chair for hurting businesses

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The agency has shifted its focus toward combating systemic discrimination, which critics say is leading it to investigate businesses where there have been no complaints.

"I think it's our concern that there has been an increasingly aggressive approach by the EEOC enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws with questionable benefits to our employees and little consideration of larger consequences for job creation," said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee's subcommittee on Workforce Protections.

"We should not be dragging our nation's job creators through unnecessary and costly investigations without factual basis of wrongdoing."

Walberg also expressed concern that the commission was allowing its enforcement actions to be run by its top lawyer acting alone.

As a result, he said, the commission was unwisely pursuing cases that it ended up losing, wasting government money and ignoring its significant backlog of cases.

"Any lawyer that tells you they've won every case is a lawyer that's never tried a case," retorted Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the panel. "It's kind of the nature of the business."

The commission Chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien defended the way the EEOC reviews the roughly 100,000 cases it receives each year.

Making matters harder for the commission, she said, are laws passed in recent decades that have expanded the EEOC's scope while budget cuts have reduced its staff.

"Our jurisdiction has grown," Berrien said. "During that same period our funding has decreased significantly. Our staffing has decreased significantly."

The commission is also furloughing its employees as a result of sequestration, the across-the-board federal budget cuts.

Those cuts have "had a real impact on our workforce and we fear it will have a real impact on our ability to make further progress toward fulfilling our mission," Berrien added.

Last April, the commission issued a guidance for businesses that conduct background checks on their workers and new hires.

The guidance, which the agency says cracks down on a practice that has a disparate impact on black and Hispanic workers, notifies employers that using a background check to make hiring decisions could expose them to possible prosecution.

The guidance does not have the force of law, but some Republicans on the panel expressed concern that it nonetheless constituted an excess of power and was rushed through without appropriate public comment.

"I see it as an overreach," Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) said.

Democrats on the subcommittee cited the pay disparity between men and women and pushed for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which seeks to address that imbalance.

Berrien said the EEOC has been working on the issue for years.

"That is a real priority, to close that gap once and for all," she said, "and I think we have made some significant progress in doing that."

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