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Democrats look to retake control of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

AP/Dave Zalubowski

Democrats are looking to regain control of the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination with the confirmation process of Kalpana Kotagal, a Biden administration nominee who would give the party a 3-2 advantage on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Kotagal, a civil rights attorney, was nominated in March to replace Republican Janet Dhillon, whose term expires in July. 

The potential replacement would give Democrats new leverage in addressing workplace-related issues. Lawmakers went down a laundry list of priorities at Kotagal’s confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Democratic senators questioned Kotagal on combating discrimination against low-wage workers, pregnancy discrimination, treatment of LGBTQ employees and how employees with long COVID-19 would be treated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Kotagal, who has represented clients, including women, in civil rights cases, said at the hearing she would consider how more enforcement can be brought into sectors where low-wage earners predominate.

“The gender wage gap remains a pernicious problem, a stubborn problem,” Kotagal said at the hearing. “Resolving issues and continuing to close the gender wage gap will put money into the pockets of families [and] workers.”

Kotagal also said finding ways to address pregnancy discrimination was of “central importance” and said as employees experience long COVID-19 symptoms, it is important they understand their right to relevant accomodations at work.

Kotagal’s appointment would also give Democrats a chance to collect data from companies that EEOC Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows, a Democrat, said is key to helping the commission address gender and racial pay gaps across the country.

Burrows told a House Committee on Education and Labor subpanel last month that she was interested in annually gathering employee pay data, which the commission did under the Obama administration, but that ended under the Trump administration. The commission would need a majority vote to reintroduce the gathering requirement for companies with more than 100 employees.

Former President Trump was brought up during the hearing by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who questioned Kotagal on her involvement with the People’s Parity Project, a national organization of lawyers and students working to reform the legal system that ran a “Trump Accountability” campaign that called for law firms and law schools not to hire some Trump officials and lawyers.

Braun questioned whether businesses or organizations associated with those individuals could expect a fair process at the EEOC if Kotagal, who serves on the organization’s advisory council, were appointed to the commission.

“They absolutely can expect a fair process from me,” Kotagal said. “My involvement with the People’s Parity Project has been with respect to creating equal opportunity in the legal profession to ensure that folks have an opportunity from underrepresented backgrounds to have the same kind of opportunity that I have been so fortunate to have.”

Kotagal is most well known for writing a contract stipulation, an inclusion rider, that has worked to make Hollywood more inclusive, according to a biography by her alma mater University of Pennsylvania. The stipulation holds that the cast and crew of a film have a proportionate number of women, minorities and LGBTQ individuals to match real-world demographics and has been adopted by many well-known celebrities in recent years.

Hailing from a family of Indian immigrants, Kotagal highlighted the importance of equal opportunity at her hearing.

“I know what is possible in this great country and I know that it is due in no small part to our nation’s deep commitment to equal opportunity,” Kotagal said. “In the workplace, that means ensuring that all workers are judged on their merits and their ability to do the job.”

If confirmed, Kotagal’s term will expire in 2027. The term of one other Republican on the committee, Keith Sonderling, will expire in July 2024, potentially giving Biden another chance at a nomination to the agency before his first term is up.

Updated 6:36 p.m.

Tags Biden Mike Braun Trump

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