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The Government Is Finally Processing Workplace Harassment Claims Online

As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.

After years of handling worker complaints through phone calls, in-person office visits and snail mail, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is going digital — and that’s helping the federal agency make a dent in its backlog of charges.

Tens of thousands of complaints are filed annually to the agency, which is responsible for enforcing workplace discrimination. But over the years, the EEOC has gotten behind, amassing a backlog of complaints. Now the agency has begun chipping away at it in several ways, including by updating administrative procedures and processes. In fiscal year 2017, the number of pending charges left in the inventory decreased by 16 percent, to 61,621 pending charges — the lowest level in 10 years, according to a November news release from the agency. That decrease partially stems from the agency’s efforts to start handling processes electronically, the agency says.

“Before we were able to use these online tools, we were able to do enough reforms and to look at our processes close enough that we were able to make a reduction in inventory,” said Nick Inzeo, the agency’s director of field programs. “We’re hoping that the technology tool will help us even more.”

In 2012, the EEOC set a goal of implementing a “digital charge system” in order to make the filing process more efficient. Take the EEOC’s intake questionnaire, which workers must fill out before their complaint is formally filed, as an example — for years, workers had to fill it out by mail or in person at an agency office. Last month, the agency launched new features on its website so that workers can start the process of filing a discrimination complaint there.

“Every time we can do something electronically rather than by hand, it’s going to save time and probably save money,” Inzeo said.

Previously, the EEOC had developed an online portal that it uses to communicate with employers that have had complaints filed against them. Through the portal, employers can check the status of the process and securely submit documents.

The worker-focused additions to the website were first piloted in five field offices across the country before being launched nationwide. By using it, workers can get responses from the EEOC more quickly than they could before, as well as official documentation of the date on which their inquiry was initially filed with the agency.

An online scheduling feature lets workers make appointments with investigators, and another enables those moving forward with charges to sign forms electronically. Inzeo said the agency plans to continue altering and enhancing the digital system throughout the next year, and officials hope that it will become the go-to way for workers to initiate the charge process.

Kathryn Casteel writes about economics and policy issues for FiveThirtyEight.

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