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US agency launches new offensive against job discrimination

In an effort to increase employment opportunities among minorities across the nation, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is going public.

In nationwide television commercials, local press conferences, neighborhood meetings, and business conferences, the message of EEOC chairman Clarence Thomas is clear: ''Equal employment opportunity is the law, and it will be enforced.''

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According to John Hawkins, an EEOC spokesman, the EEOC is launching a new offensive to make people aware of the EEOC offices in their communities.

''We want to encourage employers to voluntarily comply with the law,'' he says, as well as to show the public that when citizens encounter discriminatory practices, the commission will back them up - in court if necessary.

The commission is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin.

Although equal opportunity is the law, it is not faring well in Boston, according to the commission.

Statistics released last week by the regional office show, in many cases, the job outlook for minorities is worse now than it was in 1970.

In response to problems here, and similar ones across the country, EEOC officials are trying to tailor their programs to more effectively confront discrimination.

Edward Mercado, EEOC district director in the New York-New England region, says the key to success is a willingness to fight discrimination cases in court.

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''If people know we have had success in the courts, across a wide range of issues,'' EEOC will be in a stronger position to ensure compliance with the law, he says.

But Robert L. Williams, an attorney with the EEOC, says that with relatively few lawyers, the EEOC does not have the resources to spend a lot of time in court. He says a new national ''blueprint'' will allow the commission to target broad, widespread discrimination practices in a more systematic way.

Under the new agenda, the EEOC will select cases that have potential to promote or clarify broad antidiscrimination laws, Mr. Williams says.

Beyond that, he says, the commission will be reaching out more to specific groups and areas which have been underrepresented by the EEOC.

To a great extent, says director Mercado, the EEOC is only able to respond to complaints brought against employers. The commission must reach out to inform the public of its rights, and be available when help is needed, he says.

In past years, the commission's efforts in Boston have not been very visible, and therefore EEOC has not been active in litigating cases, says Thomas L. Saltonstall, EEOC regional director.

But since Mr. Saltonstall came to the EEOC last year, he says he has been trying to increase its activity and visibility. The office has moved from an out-of-the-way location to Boston's Government Center.

Saltonstall says he does not know of any American city where minorities' opportunities for employment are worse.

His office has identified one business in Boston with more than 500 employees , ''all of whom are white, and only three of whom are women.'' A legal suit is being brought against the company, Saltonstall says.

On a broader scale, the EEOC surveyed 20 percent of Boston's large printing and publishing industry. Its findings:

* Of 2,072 officials and managers, only 63 represent minority groups.

* Of 3,879 office and clerical workers, only 205 are minorities.

* Of the total 17,895 employees (excluding laborers) 889 - or just over 5 percent - are minorities.

In an EEOC sampling of Boston investment companies, minorities represented fewer than 4 percent of the managers, professionals, technicians, and sales workers. And the labor work force, says Saltonstall, was completely segregated - 241 of 241 laborers are white.

Generally, Boston's minorities are better educated than those in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, the statistics show. Even so, they are underemployed compared with minorities in those cities.

Saltonstall says private-sector employers clearly have not done their part to hire minorities. At best, he says, this represents inadequate attention to the law; at worst, unlawful employment discrimination.

He wants to push employers to voluntarily comply with the law.

Next month he intends to begin holding meetings with Boston area employers to make specific proposals on how to provide equal opportunities for minority employees. Yet, he says, his office will demonstrate an increased willingness to fight discrimination in court.

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