AUGUST 02, 02:28 EDT
By LARRY MARGASAK
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — While President Bush wants the nation's primary disability law to be strengthened, a study concludes that a U.S. enforcement agency rarely wins benefits for disabled workers filing discrimination claims and allows most cases to "grow stale."
The University of North Carolina study showed less than 12 percent of the claimants received any monetary benefits or job adjustments in the past five years, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contends the study does not present a balanced picture.
Past backlogs have been reduced, positive results for claimants have recently increased and the study fails to account for cases that have little legal merit, said EEOC spokesman Reginald Welch.
"Doling out undeserved benefits is not what we're about. That's not the way Congress expected us to enforce the Americans With Disabilities Act," Welch said.
The chief UNC researcher, Dr. Kathryn Moss, said the federal agency has not lived up to expectations.
"Complainants expect their cases to be investigated, but for most it is just a place for their case to grow stale," she said, adding most people filing claims "are simply getting into a line to nowhere."
President Bush focused on the disabled in his weekly radio address last Saturday, urging Congress to strengthen the 11-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act signed by his father. The president called for improving transportation for disabled workers and encouraged private companies to develop technologies to assist them.
Moss, who said she primarily blamed Congress for not providing the EEOC with enough personnel or funding, found:
—From mid-1995, when the agency began assigning cases to one of three categories depending on their strength, to last Sept. 30, 11.7 percent of the cases resulted in monetary benefits or a favorable job adjustment. More than 120,000 cases were handled during the time span, the overwhelming majority of them closed without a benefit for the applicant.
—During that period, 22.8 percent of the top "A" category cases resulted in benefits, but only 12.7 percent of the less strong "B" cases and only 1.8 percent of the "C" cases had positive results for claimants.
—Favorable outcomes varied greatly among EEOC offices, with the percentage of "A" cases ranging from 4.9 percent to 36.6 percent, depending on location.
"After categorization, the vast majority of cases receive minimal investigative attention and outcomes that favor employers," Moss wrote in her findings, adding that cases may end up in the wrong category.
Moss' research is not the first time EEOC's enforcement has been criticized.
Last year The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, said the EEOC was too restrictive in defining disability.
"The EEOC bears a strong responsibility for fostering and not challenging an atmosphere in which the definition of disability became viewed as a technical and restrictive ticket to an exclusive private club of persons entitled to ADA protection," the council said.
Welch, however, said Moss' study doesn't reflect recent improvements and sets up an artificial standard to measure the EEOC's record.
Moreover, he contended there's no ideal percentage of cases that should produce benefits, because each case must meet the discrimination standards under the law.
"It would be nice if you could make everyone who is upset leave happier, but law does not allow us the latitude to do that," he said.
The spokesman disputed that cases become stale, and provided figures showing that the average days needed to process a disabilities case has dropped from 371 in fiscal 1996 to 189 earlier this year.
The EEOC produced more recent figures showing 15.9 percent of the claimants received a benefit from the fourth quarter of 1995 through last March. In the second quarter of this year, the percentage of those receiving benefits reached 26.7 percent. Benefits could include rehiring, policy changes, promotions, transfers and training.
Welch said the top category cases receive the most attention because they're the strongest claims. Cases assigned to the lower categories may not meet provisions in the law or have no evidence of discrimination, he said, but added that new information can result in a category upgrade.
He said the vast majority of EEOC offices classified about 20 percent of their cases in the top category, accusing Moss of concentrating on a few offices that threw off the percentages and make the agency look inconsistent.
"We're not a cookie-cutter operation," he said. "Enforcement is fluid. It depends on what comes in the door."
Copyright 2001 Associated Press