Eleanor Norton reflects on equal-employment successes

In her office on the large, glass coffee table is a dime-store paperback by Mary Roberts Rinehart, "The State vs. Elinor Norton," featuring a heroine who is "beautiful and tormented."

On the sofa sits a comfortable Eleanor Holmes Norton in an off-white dress-for-success suit and no shoes. A managerial sort of woman with a lawyer's habit of giving comprehensive answers, she is looking back over her four years as chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

"I'm a Washington, D.C., native, though I feel like a New Yorker," says the former civil rights commissioner for New York City. "When I first came back to D.C., my friends said, 'Girl, you gotta be crazy to take a job like that.' They acted like it was battle pay --but it wasn't at all."

Her mouth fills with the details of hindsight, but her eye stays steadily on her son Johnny, a bright eight-year-old spending his school holiday at his mother's office.

"The commission had undergone a decade's decline in operations -- there was the so-called 'black backlog' [close to 100,000 cases in December 1977], and an old-fashioned, lethargic, elephantine method of processing a case."

That method included a three-tiered organization of district offices, litigation investigators, and administrators "going out to a plant and interviewing everybody,m then waiting for that information to get back. Then they'd spend time checking on all the little forms that weren't returned. And thenm they'd decide to expand the thing into a class-action suit -- even when the plant was actually more progressive than most," she says.

The basic problem, as she saw it, was that EEOC personnel were "treating each case in the old adversarial way -- they acted like they had to prepare for a court battle."

Now that party making the complaint and a representative from the employer "sit down across the table from each other with a trained EEOC interrogator and talk about the problem. Each side can see the other's strengths and weaknesses, which creates a settlement atmosphere," she says.

The result of these guidelines is a greatly reduced processing time -- down to three months for an average case, vs. two years under the old methods -- and a remedy rate that stands at 52 percent.

"Companies take to this method," Ms. Norton explains. "Under the old method, we only won 14 percent of the time, but the companies felt they'd lost. They had to spend so much time and energy fighting the case. But if you bring them a case that occurred eight weeks ago, which is still fresh in everyone's mind, and get it cleared up within a month or two, then everyone's satisfied."

Once she got the basic mandate of EEOC ----eanor Holmes Norton found new uses for her managerial skills. The Carter administration extended EEOC's mission to include the Equal Pay Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, two "logical additions to our authority," she says, that "eliminated duplication and waste in enforcing equal employment opportunity throughout the government."

Thanks in part to Ms. Norton's streamlined methods, which enabled EEOC to process 50,000 cases per year during her tenure, she views the equal-employment field as "very stable now." We have had 10 years of extraordinary and deep court cases to build the law."

"Even it they disbanded EEOC tomorrow," she asserts, "and there is no way they could, there would still be thousands of court cases presented each year based on precedent."

She says this in response to a question about the Reagan administration's transition team report on EEOC, a highly critical document that accuses the commission of "racism" and suggests reductions, including a one-year freeze on lawsuits, severe budget cuts, and a reconsideration of affirmative-action programs.

Up to this point, Ms. Norton appears as a friendly, thoughtful, thorough manager and parent. Then her tough, inner core shows through in her next answers.

"Let's be very clear about where we got affirmative action," she says with finger-pointing intensity."It was made after a large, nonviolent civil rights movement, and it responded to a 200-year history of intentional discrimination against women and minorities. And the decision is vindicated. Every federal court has sanctioned these remedies."

On Feb. 21, she left the EEOC office without qualms about its future, since "they can't go back -- they would have to amend Title VII, and nobody's going to do that."

She has also left court cases in the works that may greatly enlarge the commission role the redefine the structure of the American work force. One of them -- Gunther vs. the County of Washington -- tests whether EEOC has the right to litigate for "equal pay for comparable work" -- a concept that should have personnel experts scurrying to define what is comparable and what is not in the work force.

The case argues for a group of jail matrons whose salaries are below those of the male guards. Believing that their work is substantially the same as the guards, the matrons are asking for the same pay. Their claim has been upheld by a circuit court and may go to the Supreme Court.

Ms. Norton, meanwhile, will be doing some defining of her own. As a senior fellow at the prestigious Urban Institute, she will spend the next year writing a book to "clarify a most muddled public discussion" of affirmative action, a kind of "State vs. Eleanor Holmes Norton."

Will she be coming back to EEOC one day? "Life doesn't work that way," she says with a shrug. "Life goes forward, not back."

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