Fair Employment and Housing Agency Backlog Tied to Computer Upgrade

Another computer system intended to boost efficiency for a state agency in California comes up short, prompting criticism that discrimination claims aren't being investigated fast enough.

by Jon Ortiz, Sacramento Bee / November 12, 2013

Another key state computer system designed to boost efficiency has run into trouble, this time drawing complaints that the California agency investigating discrimination claims has seen a decline in the speed and quality of its work.

The 15-month-old system, HoudiniEsq, was intended to automate the process for filing complaints for those who say they've been denied housing or jobs due to racial, gender, age or other types of discrimination.

But investigators who work at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing say the chosen software didn't fit the jobs they do and that computer glitches and continual workflow changes led to delays in processing complaints. Their workload has also increased as filers find it easier to register complaints online rather than through the telephone or mail.

More than a year after the system's launch, California still doesn't meet federal standards for processing claims within 100 days, leaving some filers in legal limbo.

Director Phyllis Cheng (pictured at left) acknowledged that adapting her department to Houdini has been challenging, but she said her agency has turned its business around. Federal standards for case closure are unrealistic for some cases, she said. Employee criticisms, she contends, are understandable venting by state workers emerging from years of budget and staffing cuts who
now are struggling with change.

"I feel for them. Furloughs, hiring freezes, all while starting the new system," Cheng said during a recent telephone interview. "It was so much."

Like the difficulties in rolling out a new computer system for national health care, California has experienced its share of new technology snafus. Most recently, the state Employment Development Department mishandled unemployment benefit payments for nearly 150,000 people as it switched computer systems over the Labor Day weekend.

Houdini launched on July 30, 2012, promising to take Fair Employment and Housing into the paperless-records era. Although a 2010 UCLA Law RAND report said its former case-management system was "remarkably complete," Cheng said that the old paper-based program was outdated, increasingly difficult to maintain and afforded limited access.

"At any moment it was going to fall apart," she said.

The off-the-shelf case-management program cost about $738,000. Its North Carolina-based manufacturer, Logic Bit Software LLC, markets it mostly to law offices, and about 6,500 firms use it.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays the department up to $2,600 per residential-discrimination case it investigates, began noting problems beginning in September 2012.

Federal officials' assessments found a precipitous drop in the number of residential discrimination cases Fair Employment and Housing completed within 100 days, the deadline for the state to receive full payment for cases it investigates and closes. It attributed some of the decline to Houdini's rough start.

For the year that ended June 30, 2013, just 10 percent of the 466 residential discrimination cases that Fair Employment and Housing had closed on behalf of HUD were completed within 100 days, down from 37 percent in 2011-12. HUD wants at least half investigated and closed within that time frame.

Ernie Herrera, a former investigator who recently retired from Fair Employment and Housing, said his productivity suffered when Houdini came online.

"It was never made for us, you could tell," he said. "It was made for lawyers. It asked us about minutes and billable hours, for example, things that we don't do."

Dealing with glitches and ongoing workflow tweaks aimed at accommodating Houdini slowed work, Herrera said. Meanwhile, the system's online complaint-filing feature contributed to a record 24,000 housing and employment discrimination complaints by California residents in 2012-13, according to Fair Employment statistics. The previous high was 20,000.

Fair Employment and Housing's lower case-closure rate turned into lost revenue for the department's $21 million budget.

HUD paid the state just $771,000 in complaint-processing fees in 2012-13, down from the previous low of $1.3 million the year before. The record high, $3.1 million in fees collected, came in 2008-09, four years before Houdini's launch and during a period when employees were on furlough two days per month.

Federal officials also noticed that the quality of investigations had declined. According to HUD's April assessment, complex cases that needed "independent corroboration" with on-site investigation were getting short shrift.

Herrera said that he and his colleagues often had to make difficult choices between pushing though a growing mountain of complaints or deeper investigations.

"We didn't have time for that after Houdini launched," he recalled. "You'd want to go out on a case, but those three or four hours in the field would come back and bite you."

Houdini also didn't produce some information that HUD officials had relied on to track cases. Instead, according to its April assessment, the new process "does not provide the types of detailed case activity notes that the former system provided," and nearly one in four cases closed between July 2012 and February 2013 "were either incomplete or inaccurate."

Meanwhile, the number of investigators dedicated to residential investigations fell from 21 in 2011 to just 10 in April of this year, according to the federal review. The department's overall staffing has fallen from 220 employees six years ago to about 175 last year, according to state statistics. Cheng attributed the attrition to a rash of retirements combined with hiring freezes and budget cuts.

"Although qualitative issues regarding DFEH's processing of fair housing complaints have never been raised in the 19 years of our association with DFEH ... we believe staffing inadequacies have begun also to affect the quality of (the department's) work," Anné Quesada, director of HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in San Francisco, wrote in an April letter that demanded the state shape up.

Cheng promised HUD that with more training, more staff and the Houdini system, the state's numbers would improve. It has hired more investigators, and this month HUD complimented the department for a dramatic 600 percent increase in case closures from August through September -- although the state is still shy of the 100-day case-closure benchmark.

Employees remain concerned, saying the department is short-cutting its way to better statistics. In August, 10 employment discrimination investigators in the Los Angeles office confronted Cheng with their concerns.

"(W)e believe we run the risk of closing cases with potential merit because even a minimal investigation was not done," the investigators wrote in a signed Aug. 13 follow-up memo to Cheng obtained by The Bee.

Those who complain have less time to retract their allegations under the new system, another change that bothers investigators. Before Houdini launched, staff screened complaints to weed out those without merit and set aside others when the complainant had a change of heart. In those instances, the party alleged to have discriminated was not told about the complaint and the federal government wasn't billed.

Now the department almost always forwards complaints to employers or housing authorities accused of discrimination, even if the person who filed the allegation wants to withdraw.

The new policy boosts the number of cases reported to federal officials and is generating more money for the department, but Herrera said it also can thrust the person complaining into an awkward or even hazardous position after the notice is delivered.

"It could get the complainant in trouble," he said, "or put them in potential danger."

Cheng's explanation: "We have an obligation to serve the complaint. When people did the intake, it took many months. But today we have a shorter investigation period. We can't wait for somebody to change their mind. We have 24,000 complaints coming through our system."

(c) 2013 McClatchy News Service

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