WASHINGTON -- Even as the federal work force shrank, employee complaints alleging discrimination or other mistreatment swelled in the 1990s and have already cost taxpayers more than $866 million, federal records show.
Federal workers are seven times more likely to file a civil rights complaint than private sector employees, one analysis by federal managers found. Those who study such matters say federal workers are supersensitive about their rights, partly because the system makes it easy to seek redress.
Downsizing seems to have contributed to the complaints. Between 1990 and 1997, the government's payroll fell by 340,000, to 2.7 million, increasing competition for jobs and complaints from those laid off. Other causes include greater sensitivity to discrimination, changes in the law and a multilayered grievance process that doesn't exist at private companies.
"People are more aware and maybe even testing the boundaries," said David Larson, a Creighton University law professor who studies employment law.
Private firms also get worker complaints. But in studying 10 years of complaints, the Senior Executive Association, a federal managers group, said government employees use the grievance system far more than workers at private companies.
Walter Thomas filed a complaint contending the State Department unfairly denied him job assignments because he is black. "The system accepts blacks as long as they stay in positions and never rise to the top," Thomas said.
His case evolved into a class-action lawsuit for black foreign service officers that took 10 years and $3.8 million to settle. The 1996 agreement also included costs more difficult to tally -- promotions for some officers and diversity training.
An Associated Press review of federal records found that from 1990 through 1997, the government spent $378 million on counselors, judges and investigators who handle complaints.
Another $488 million went to employees who won compensation awards ranging from a few thousand dollars to millions for class-action lawsuits.
No single agency tracks all worker complaints or costs. The AP reviewed documents from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Merit System Protection Board, U.S. Special Counsel and the Treasury Department Judgment Fund. But many hidden costs, such as confidential financial settlements, couldn't be calculated.
"There's a phenomenal cost," said Jerry Shaw, an attorney for the executives association. "The system in the private sector is not anywhere near as elaborate."
Evidence of the upward trend:
-- Civil rights complaints rose 70 percent from 17,000 cases in 1990 to nearly 29,000 cases in 1997, a preliminary EEOC report indicates.
-- EEOC figures show twice as many employees appealed decisions in 1997 compared with 1991.
-- The number of workers appealing layoffs to the Merit System Protection Board rose from 726 in 1996 to 1,126 one year later.
In 1997, one-fifth of the allegations in EEOC complaints concerned racial discrimination, mostly toward blacks. But whites filed about one-fourth of the race cases, alleging reverse discrimination.
Ed Drury, a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller and supervisor in Florida, filed suit in 1994 after he was replaced by a black man.
"I was expendable being a white male," said Drury, who won $300,000 and a job supervising an air traffic control facility in the Virgin Islands.
More often, employees complain the government isn't doing enough to provide equal opportunities for minorities, who make up 29 percent of the work force.
"There are some people who just haven't gotten the message" despite years of affirmative action programs, said Melodee Stith, the Interior Department's equal opportunity director.
Some critics contend affirmative action programs increase tensions and encourage complaints.
"As long as the government pursues race- or gender-based hiring policies, you are going to end up offending someone," says George Nesterczuk, staff director of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's civil service panel.
Preliminary EEOC figures for 1997 showed agencies made an official finding of discrimination in only 359, or 4 percent, of the 8,728 discrimination cases decided by federal agencies. But more than 6,000 other cases were resolved with corrective action.
Experts attribute some of the rise in discrimination complaints to a 1991 law enabling federal employees to seek compensatory damages of up to $300,000 in such cases and to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
Not all employees prevail. Mail carrier Pamela Heintzelman claimed disability discrimination after the Postal Service fired her, alleging she misrepresented a back injury that kept her from working full hours. Postal investigators had videotaped Heintzelman, who raises Australian shepherd dogs, running and bending at several dog shows while on paid leave.
Heintzelman said those activities were not the type of repetitive movement that hurts her back. She lost in court, but her union helped her return to the Postal Service as a clerk.
The government is trying to reduce complaints.
In 1990, Congress authorized federal agencies to use alternative dispute resolution, a mediation method popular in the private sector. Over 40 agencies are trying it.
Officials at the Postal Service, source of the most complaints, say employee complaints recently fell by 77 percent in three regions offering mediation.