New Labor office aims to help federal contractors comply with rules

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The Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is little known outside the world of federal contracting. But it looms large there. Now, to help companies and employees with the myriad of issues that come up, it has established an Ombuds Service. A sort of one-stop-shop for labor law issues. With details, the ombudsman himself, Marcus Stergio joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin. 

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Stergio, good to have you on.

Marcus Stergio: Hi, Tom, thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: Let’s begin with the OFCCP itself. As I said, I think probably it’s good to remind people, what it does and where it lives within the Labor Department.

Marcus Stergio: OFCCP is a federal agency, as you said, within the Department of Labor, and it’s a civil rights enforcement agency focused on, you know, holding those who do business with the federal government accountable for complying with affirmative action and non discrimination legal requirements. So more specifically, it is the the workplaces of federal contractors and subcontractors in which OFCCP promotes diversity and enforces laws which protects employees from discrimination. So discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or status as a protected veteran.

Tom Temin: Alright, and there’s a process that kind of led up to the establishment of this new service, the ombuds service. Give us a little bit of the background there.

Marcus Stergio: Yeah, sure. So, you know, I think important also to add to what OFCCP does, kind of leading into the recent history is that the agency conducts a series of compliance evaluations to essentially review a contractor’s affirmative action plans an equal employment opportunity data to ensure that contractors are hiring, compensating and promoting without discriminating against protected classes of workers. There’s also a separate angle of OFCCP enforcement of legal requirements, which allows for the employees of federal contractors themselves to file a complaint of discrimination. If they feel they’ve identified instances of individual discrimination. So Those two mechanisms I think are important to understand in terms of the primary angles upon which OFCCP evaluates the practices of employers and, and also focuses heavily on providing compliance assistance so that contractors have the tools they need to prevent instances of non compliance and operate workplaces which do promote Diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity. So with that understood the recent history, you know, something I’ve learned in my nine months with the agency is that OFCCP listens very closely to the contractor community in terms of feedback received, and the the recent feedback has been that the agency needs to review and enhance contractor compliance assistance. So increased transparency, engage in more transparent and effective communication with external stakeholders. And that advice was reiterated by the GAO, the Government Accountability Office through recommendations the GAO made to the agency in 2016. So as you might imagine, you know, there’s this fear that exists among the contractor community when you know they feel the need to raise concerns or requests that issues be addressed by the same federal enforcement agency who reviews their employment practices. So, you know, the ombuds service is really the agency’s answer to those recommendations. It’s a confidential and neutral resource. And I as ombudsman an independent of front office or senior leadership at the agency, a more informal procedure that strives to, you know, be an outlet for contractors to seek resolution of their concerns about OFCCP.

Tom Temin: And how will this work? How will people contact the ombudsman or the use the ombuds service? Will they pick up the phone and say, give me Stergio or do you have some other inbound ways for people to ask questions?

Marcus Stergio: So a little bit of both, you know, contacting me is also informal. I have no preference for how people get in touch with me, folks can ask You said pick up the phone and give me a call. Although, you know, I think that seems like more of an old school approach these days. So, you know, people have a couple platforms they can utilize. They can send me an email and set up a near future time to have a phone conversation. And we’ve also created an online referral form that people are able to fill out and submit online through the OFCCP website, which gathers data, you know, basic information about the issue they’re seeking assistance regarding. I think important to note is that regardless of how someone’s preference for contacting me might be, something I immediately will be interested in is having a phone conversation with that person so I can better understand the issues from their perspective, help to diagnose the root causes of the conflict, and explore with them what they’d like to see happen moving forward, what their goals for resolution might look like. And from there, we can either continue working one on one, strategizing and coming up with a solution that works for them or if they’re comfortable with my doing so, I can invite other interested parties to the dispute and facilitate dialogue, set up an informal mediation between all of those involved to allow them to come up with something that kind of works mutually for all of those, you know, to a dispute .

Tom Temin: And can contracting officers, that is to say, the federal side, contact you if they suspect something wrong going on with a contractor?

Marcus Stergio: Yeah, you know, people can always call me and discuss concerns they have, you know, concerns along those lines, but I think that’s a good example of something I would I would refer elsewhere by talking through what I can and can’t do with that person, and helping them realize a more appropriate avenue for having their concern about the contractor addressed — and I say that because, you know, the missing component in that scenario is OFCCP. So my involvement is specifically when there are issues which exists between OFCCP and a federal contractor, or OFCCP and a complainant who’s filed an individual discrimination complaint, or even an anonymous complaint which highlights an issue that someone from the contractor community has about OFCCP, that too I can be an been effective outlet for addressing because I as ombuds, with, with the independence I operate within can put the agency on notice of this this concern and provide recommendations that might help to address the concern that exists. So, yeah, well, those are, let’s say the more ideal situations for the ombuds service to be involved back to your original question. If people are unsure about whether or not it’s a good referral for the ombuds service, I say, go ahead and contact me because I can always, if not helped directly, have a conversation with someone and brainstorm whose jurisdiction their issue might fall within.

Tom Temin: Now, people at other types of employers would normally go to the EEOC, or in the case of the federal government itself to the Office of Special Counsel, but that wouldn’t apply to outsiders. So what about the EEOC and its role, does this exist alongside that or would you refer a case there if you felt it would be helpful?

Marcus Stergio: Yeah, good question. So EEOC and OFCCP are similar in many ways. But what this is really, you know, the OFCCP is an outlet for those employees who seek remedies relevant to individual discrimination within the workplaces of specifically federal contractors and subcontractors, whereas EEOC’s jurisdiction is much larger, because it’s not just operating with and around federal contractors and subcontractors. But the two agencies, you know, are very much in contact collaborate as much as possible, because it is really, you know, the legal requirements that we’re looking at are pretty much identical in terms of what it is that we’re enforcing within the workplaces of employers.

Tom Temin: And how did you come to this work?

Marcus Stergio: So my background is as a conflict resolution practitioner, I spent many years before coming to the agency as a mediator as an arbitrator, as a trainer, you know, providing conflict management and mediation and negotiation training. And I was always interested more specifically in workplace in employment dispute resolution and an ombuds work is essentially that, you know, whether you’re an internal ombuds or an external ombuds like I am now with OFCCP, I’m helping people work through equal employment opportunity issues, and it’s it’s work that I really enjoy. So, so that’s why I’m here.

Tom Temin: And how busy has the hotline been so far?

Marcus Stergio: You know, the program was officially launched just about two weeks ago, I had already handled I think at that point, it was 28 referrals, which, you know, I thought was a pretty good number for you know, considering the fact that not everyone knew I was available to to help with referrals yet, but that number has more than doubled in the last couple of weeks. So it’s a it’s a welcome sign that people are comfortable reaching out and utilizing the service. And what I’m really focused on now is just making sure that that comfort level continues to build because again, this is a civil rights enforcement agency so not everyone is traditionally comfortable coming forward and expressing concerns but I you know, I’m focused on educating and getting the word out there about how I can be helpful and that it is a confidential resource so that people should should feel, you know, like that that trust is there with utilizing my services.

Tom Temin: Marcus Stergio is the Ombudsman in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs at the Labor Department. Thanks so much for joining me.

Marcus Stergio: Thanks for having me, Tom. I appreciate it.

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