EEOC HEADQUARTERS WASHINGTON, D.C.
“We’re getting heavy pressure from the White House right now,” EEOC Chair Ami Saitou said. “They’re worried about Obama’s legacy as a civil rights champion. So, the commissioners voted to establish a team in Austin to quickly uncover lots of discrimination in Texas and the surrounding states. I want you to lead that team.”
“Why me?” Alice could barely breathe. “Why on earth did you pick me?” This was the last thing Alice had expected when she’d been summoned from her office in New Orleans to headquarters.
Chair Saitou’s dark eyes seemed to drill through Alice’s soul. After an eternity, she glanced down at Alice’s dossier and flipped through the file. Looking up, she said, “Ms. Arden, you have over twenty-five years with the agency. You’re one of our most skilled managers. I need results fast, and I know you can deliver.”
Pain flexed up Alice’s right leg, which had been damaged in an auto accident in her teens. It always did when her stress level escalated precipitously. Staring at her lap, Alice automatically massaged the tightened muscle. She looked around the corner office and glanced to her right, spying a picture of the chair with President Obama; both were dressed to the hilt, probably at some White House function. The office was devoid of anything else personal, giving it a cold, sterile feeling. In the background, Alice heard a train rumble from Union Station.
“Well?” the chair asked.
“Uh, yes, I…”
“Wonderful.” Saitou slid a folder to Alice. “Here’s your first case. Sexual harassment. Commissioner Feldstein wants this on a fast track. The attorney handling the case for the Charging Party (CP) is a friend of his from law school—Jack Caulfield. I want you to handle it personally.”
Alice nodded, a pit forming in her stomach. Her head throbbed. Now she’d be on Feldstein’s blacklist if she couldn’t find “cause.” He was vindictive that way. If you didn’t deliver what he thought you should, he gave you hell.
“You’ll have to move carefully,” Saitou said. “Turns out the alleged harasser is the grandson of the big Republican donor Jack Stewart IV. You need to get it right.”
Saitou stood. “My assistant, Ms. Wilson, will provide you with assignment details. Keep me posted on the case.”
Alice struggled to her feet, shouldering her purse and securing her portfolio. Clutching her cane tightly, she followed Saitou to the outer office where they shook hands.
“Wait here. Ms. Wilson will be with you shortly. And remember, I’m counting on you.” Saitou gave Alice a warm smile and disappeared into her office.
Dazed, Alice sat at a nearby vacant workstation, its former occupant no doubt a victim of the vicious budget cuts at the agency. The building was like a tomb; empty offices, their computer equipment stripped, lined the hallways. Idly she opened a desk drawer; the odor of dust bunnies entangled in a rotten rubber band and bent paperclips assaulted her.
It wasn’t always that way. She remembered the past: employees bustling, going about important business. Sighing, she gently closed the drawer. Footsteps echoing along the cavernous hall caused Alice to look up. A young woman approached.
“Hi, I’m Jane Wilson. Commissioner Feldstein promised that you would interview CP tomorrow.” Wilson glanced at her watch and handed Alice a ticket to Houston. You’ll need to get to the airport ASAP. I’ll call you later.”
Alice squeezed into a middle seat on the plane, one of the few spaces left, and reluctantly stowed her cane along with her winter coat in the overhead bin. She’d been dependent on a walking stick for the last ten years and dreaded what would happen when its support wasn’t enough. Drawing her elbows into her side, she closed her eyes and tried to relax, but the cabin was stifling. Sweat began to form on her brow. Already, her anxiety was sky- high. She’d had it under control for years, but could she keep it in check with this new assignment?
Truth be told, Alice was flat burned-out and cruising toward retirement. This new assignment would exhaust her even more. Each case she touched was a mini soap opera. The CPs were usually hurt and angry, but most of the time, something besides discrimination was causing their problems at work. Bad supervisors, unfair treatment—you name it. And then some were simply downright unreasonable. Only last week one complainant became angry when Alice’s investigator couldn’t find discrimination, and Alice had to intervene personally. The CP had only been on the job for two months and was being written up for performance, at which point she had yelled discrimination. Apparently, she had forged most of her résumé and didn’t have the requisite skills to perform the position. Yet the woman couldn’t understand why she was about to be fired.
Whenever Alice made a decision, one party was unhappy. Frankly, she’d had enough of all the drama and negativity. If most of the cases were legitimately discrimination, her job wouldn’t be so bad; unfortunately, those cases were few and far between.
Regrettably, Alice needed to work at least another eighteen months until she was eligible for early retirement. With all the agency’s budget issues, her position might be eliminated, and she could be demoted, or worse yet, laid off. Successfully completing this new assignment would hopefully buy her some time.
After takeoff, Alice eased her seat back and tried to nap. Images of her mother in happier times flitted through her mind. As a single parent, her mother had taken a bookkeeping job at an auto parts store. The manager was totally inept, and her mother had run the entire operation single-handedly for years, ordering stock, hiring and supervising employees, and creating advertising campaigns. When the manager retired, the owner hired a newly graduated high school football star and told her mother to train him before letting her go.
The years following Mom’s termination were tough on Alice. As an older woman with no higher education, her mother found it difficult to land a good-paying, full-time job. The bitterness and disappointment of working dead-end positions fueled Mom’s alcohol consumption. Eventually, she lost even those lousy assignments because of spotty attendance, leaving Alice to care for her financially.
Alice had urged her to get help for her drinking, to no avail. Helpless, she watched her mother’s painful decline. Mom ultimately succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver.
Angry with her own impotence, Alice had sworn on her mother’s deathbed that she would make sure discrimination didn’t happen to any other women. To that end, she quit her accounting job and went to work for the EEOC in the Atlanta office.
Still, Alice dreaded the stress that was sure to come with the new assignment. When she felt pressured, like her mother, she had found that only alcohol could ease her anxiety, and she absolutely didn’t need to start drinking again. Alice rubbed her aching leg and searched her purse for relief from an excruciating headache. She’d simply have to find a way other than alcohol to deal with her angst.
ATLANTA DISTRICT OFFICE ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Inman Parker stared at the e-mail in disbelief. Jackson had a stroke! But he’s my age, Inman thought. It can’t be. It wasn’t that long ago that the two of us started working for the EEOC in Atlanta. Glancing around his office, he spied the picture of him and Jackson as they accepted an award for successfully prosecuting a consequential case against one of Georgia’s largest employers.
As Inman looked, he realized he’d been sitting in the same chair, at the same desk, in the same office, at the same location for the last ten years. The dark scuff marks from chairs banging against the white wall hadn’t even been touched up since he’d moved in.
Suddenly he felt stale. Lately, he’d been wondering “what if?” He had a wife, Shirley, who loved him, two wonderful adult children, and a career as a civil rights attorney, but it wasn’t enough. Something was gnawing at him, but what exactly? What if something happened to him and he never had the opportunity to fill that void?
He and Jackson had recently had a conversation about that very same thing. Jackson’s way of shaking things up had been to accept a volunteer assignment in Austin to work on a team to uncover discrimination suitable for litigation. Because it had been voluntary, with no moving expenses paid, Inman had passed on the same assignment. But now…maybe that’s just what he needed to counter his malaise.
Inman toyed with talking to his supervisor but thought better of it. With Jackson out, his boss would prefer Inman to stay put. So, he went over his manager’s head and e-mailed General Counsel Weber, the head of the EEO legal department, asking if he could replace Jackson. After all, how many times had Inman heard you should ask for forgiveness rather than for permission? He received a quick yes, emphasizing that there were no moving reparations. Weber said Inman should report to the Austin office on Monday.
Then Inman became alarmed. How was he going to explain his decision to Shirley? He didn’t even understand it himself.