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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Q&A: EEOC Commissioner Barker Explains the Need for a Small Business Task Force

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Constance S. Barker, a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tells Bloomberg BNA why the EEOC is re-evaluating its small business liaison efforts. An EEOC commissioner since July 2008, Barker heads a new internal task force aimed at helping small businesses comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

Commissioner Barker said she believes small employers deserve a prominent seat at the table as the EEOC develops technical assistance and educational programs to aid businesses in complying with laws and regulations enforced by the agency.  Barker whose second, five-year term ends July 2016and commissioner Victoria Lipnic are the two Republicans of the five-member commission that also included three Democrats—Chair Jacqueline Berrien and commissioners Stuart Ishimaru and Chai Feldblum. 

Bloomberg BNA: Talk about the circumstances that led the EEOC to establish a task force aimed at the small business community.    

Barker: The task force was set up to understand the realities and difficulties faced by small businesses in complying with and understanding federal discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC. We also created this internal task force to examine how the [EEOC] was interacting with small businesses and whether we were giving them the help that they needed. 

I come from a background of working with small businesses, helping them to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws. Also, I have a history of small businesses in my family. My brother is a small businessman and my parents owned a small business, so it’s part of my background. From my position on the commission, I am looking at how the EEOC laws and regulations are affecting businesses, especially small businesses.

Bloomberg BNA: How is the EEOC defining a ‘small business’?   

Barker: The Small Business Administration defines a small business as 500 employees or less. One of the things the task force will examine is where the EEOC’s education and outreach efforts should focus on small businesses. Should it be on businesses with, say, 50 to 100 employees, or should efforts focus on the businesses of 100 to 200, or the business 250 to 500? There is a huge difference between a business that has maybe 25 or 15 employees and a business that has 500 employees. 

Bloomberg BNA: Explain the challenges faced by small businesses in complying with the laws and regulations enforced by the EEOC.   

Barker: Many small businesses can’t afford to hire a qualified human resource professional who is knowledgeable of the discrimination laws and regulations. They don’t have the resources to hire a law firm that specialized in discrimination laws. They are just out there on their own with no help.  

With a large corporate entity, you are going to have highly trained in-house lawyers and a high-caliber labor and employment law firm that works with those lawyers. Big employers will also have highly trained HR people. Large employers have the resources to follow the developments in the law, to understand the complexities of the regulations and how the regulations intersect the laws. 

Bloomberg BNA: What are some initiatives the task force will address?  

Barker: So far, we have only had one organizational meeting in which we tried to examine the day-to-day realities of running a small business. The small business representatives who spoke at that meeting told us "just tell us what to do and we will do it." At the meeting, we wanted to know from them,  what’s the most effective and efficient way that we can answer their questions as they arise in their day-to-day world.

As you know, small businesses, especially new ones, are relying more on the Internet and web-based technology. As a result, the task force will examine to what extent the commission needs to adopt those technological advances. We will also look into whether relying on the standard model of an informational seminar is an effective tool in educating small business owners. 

At the next task force’s meeting, we are going to discuss creating and posting YouTube videos on the commission’s website that are aimed at small business owners. For example, a small business owner may have a question about hiring a person with a disability. The owner's immediate reaction may be that the applicant is unable to do the job or he will endanger himself or another employee. 

The owner, however, knows that he needs to keep certain things in mind when it comes to discrimination laws. The owner needs to be able to go to our website and do a quick search to find a YouTube video that will tell him in five minutes what the process is that he needs to go through and the things he needs to consider to comply with EEOC laws and regulations. 

The task force will also try to figure out whether the commission needs to improve collecting data on small businesses. We want to understand the needs of small businesses, where is it that they may have difficulties in complying with EEOC laws and regulations and what are the compliance issues in which they need more information

Bloomberg BNA: Where do you typically see small employers drop the ball on complying with federal discrimination employment laws?   

Barker: I don't think small businesses drop the ball. I think they do everything they can to comply with federal discrimination laws. Congress passes the laws and the EEOC approves regulations to give them depth and understanding. Then the courts begin to examine different small pieces of the regulations and may further expand on them. What starts out as a simple law becomes a complex law that is constantly evolving. Small business owners have to comply with local, state and federal discrimination laws and regulations. A small business owner knows that it’s against the law to discriminate on any of the basis that Congress has recognized. 

Yet, we really can’t expect small businesses to understand and know all of the complex regulations that go with federal discrimination laws and follow all of the court decisions that are continually re-evaluating and reinterpreting those laws. As an agency, we realized that’s a pretty large burden. We want to provide small businesses with the information they need to comply with EEOC laws and regulations.

Members of the public interested in submitting comments to the task force may e-mail their comments to smallbusiness@eeoc.gov or mail their comments to EEOC Small Business Task Force, 113 M Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20507.   

 


 If you are interested in participating in a Q&A on enforcement actions, legal developments and news related to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs or have a suggestion for a Q&A topic, then contact me at lbridgeford@bna.com.
 

 

 

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