equality

City Discrimination and Diversity Watchdog Goes Leaderless for Years

The seat for the Equal Employment Practices Commission chair sits empty.
The seat for the Equal Employment Practices Commission chair sits empty. Photo: NYC EEPC /YouTube

A decades-old independent commission charged with ensuring hiring equity in city government has been working without a chairperson since 2015 — a long lapse in an appointment that’s the responsibility of the mayor and Council speaker.

The Equal Employment Practices Commission, formed under amendments to the City Charter in 1989, is responsible for auditing and monitoring 141 agencies every four years to confirm compliance with federal, state and local equal employment opportunity laws.

The commission currently has a staff of 13, a budget of $1.3 million, and — since the departure of former chairman Cesar Perez in March 2015 — four rather than five commissioners.

Officials familiar with the work of the EEPC say that while the commission has managed to fulfill its basic responsibilities in recent years, the lack of a chairperson damages the entity’s perceived authority as well as the scope of its agenda.

“The work the EEPC does is incredibly important,” said City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), chair of the City Council Committee on Women and Gender Equity. “If you look at their 2018 report, they’re reviewing just the things that we all care about when it comes to discrimination in the city’s workplace — whether it’s gender or race, or any other [category].”

A ‘Lack of Interest’

Rosenthal blamed the Mayor’s Office for the delay, and noted she previously proposed a candidate for the chairperson role.

“I think not having a chair reflects the lack of interest in the work of the EEPC,” said Rosenthal. “If the EEPC were highlighted or was the go-to independent agency on this stuff, I think we would see more aggressive action against discrimination.”

The Equal Employment Practices Commission was launched under then-Mayor David Dinkins as cities across the country were focused on achieving greater diversity in employment, according to CUNY Law School professor and former EEPC commissioner Rick Rossein.

The board members of the EEPC — with no chair.
The board members of the EEPC — with no chair. Photo: EEPC 2018 Annual Report

The entity, which has had to battle for sufficient staffing and resources, has been credited with raising questions in the early 2000s about racial disparities at the Fire Department tied to an entrance exam.

The EEPC’s scrutiny of the FDNY, where only 3.4% of the firefighters were black in 2007, led to a federal lawsuit in Brooklyn that resulted in the creation of a new exam, according to documents from that case. The number of black firefighters has since doubled, according to City Council budget documents.

In the late 1990s,  then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to weaken the city’s affirmative action employment plan, Rossein said. Audits by two different city comptrollers in 2009 and 2011, during Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure, concluded the EEPC wasn’t being provided enough resources to fulfill its mission.

In 2015, the EEPC’s authority over the City Council was challenged when lawmakers refused to implement 3 of 18 corrective actions stemming from an audit released two years earlier, according to EEPC documents.

Commission’s Authority Challenged

These included instituting annual performance reviews of managerial and non-managerial employees at the Council.

The commission turned to the city Law Department for affirmation of its charter-mandated powers, which city lawyers confirmed in a May 2015 memo. The Council complied with the directives by March 2016, according to the EEPC documents.

Then last year, under first-year Speaker Corey Johnson, the Council expanded the responsibility of the commission to include auditing of sexual harassment prevention and response practices at every agency under its jurisdiction. At a City Council preliminary budget hearing last month, EEPC officials said they would need as much as $500,000 in additional funding annually to properly do that work.

EEPC Commissioner Elaine Reiss, who was appointed by Bloomberg in April 2009, also sounded the alarm to Council members about the lack of a chairperson.

“I personally have asked the Mayor’s Office of Appointments why we don’t have anybody — and they were going to get back to me. That was a year ago,” Reiss testified in late March.

“We don’t know why. We find it almost impossible to deal because [of] the issue of having two of us arrive for a meeting and the third one can’t get there for some reason and we don’t have a quorum.”

Asked about the vacancy, officials in the Mayor’s Office didn’t directly address why a new chairperson has not been appointed.

“The city is committed to equal employment practices that ensure our hiring reflects the diversity of our city. The work of the Equal Employment Practices Commission has continued to fulfill this mission without delay,” said City Hall spokesperson Laura Feyer. “We will have more to say on the appointment of a chairperson soon.”

City Council officials disagreed with the EEPC’s 2015 contention that they had challenged the  commission’s jurisdiction, saying they had made an effort to work cooperatively with the commission.

On the lack of a chairperson, Council officials noted that they’ve appointed two of the five commissioners chosen solely by the speaker. The mayor is responsible for naming two commissioners as well.

“The Council appreciates the EEPC’s mission to ensure equal employment opportunity for women and people from underrepresented communities,” said Council spokesperson Jacob Tugendrajch. “The Council is current with all of the appointments that we are solely responsible for, and the work of the EEPC is ongoing.”

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