May 24, 2006

An Adventist on the Fairness Patrol

capIn the alphabet soup of U.S. government agency names, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has always been of interest to Seventh-day Adventists because of concerns about workplace discrimination over Sabbathkeeping. KidsView reporter Brady Knott recently interviewed Cari Dominguez, chair of the EEOC. Mrs. Dominguez is a Seventh-day Adventist. Her sons, Jason and Adam, attend and this year will be graduating from Spencerville Adventist Academy and Olney Adventist Preparatory School, respectively.—Editors.
Knott: How would you explain your job to a 10-year-old? 
Dominguez: My job is to make sure that everybody who works is treated fairly—that people don’t pick on somebody for reasons that have nothing to do with how well they work. If someone doesn’t like the color of your skin, or they don’t like the way you talk; if you have an accent or if you have a disability, say you use a wheelchair, but at the same time you’re able to do the work you’re supposed to do—this agency is responsible for enforcing the laws. Our society has laws that say people may not discriminate on the basis of things that have nothing to do with your talents or abilities. My job is to be the fairness patrol.
How did the government decide that there is a need for the work you do? 
1515 page27You’ve probably seen some of the documentaries on television about the history of the civil rights movement in America. Interestingly, the movement began in churches such as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke often. African-Americans were being denied basic rights of citizenship. Churches took the lead in saying, “Wait a minute. The values of our society, the reasons this nation was founded, were so that people could exercise their freedoms.” Out of that movement came laws such as the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination Employment Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. The purpose of these laws is to make sure that no one is excluded from opportunities because of their faith or race or color.
What’s your favorite part of this job? 
My favorite part of this job is reaching out and talking to groups. If we’re ever going to overcome unhelpful attitudes and racial bias, you have to start with the youth. You have to start with the mid-schoolers and high schoolers and sometimes even the elementary schoolers, and let them know what is expected of them, what the laws require, how you can conduct yourself professionally. So I go to a lot of schools to talk about the differences when you go from a school environment to a work environment. There are things you may do at school—you banter with one another, playfully push one another around—but you don’t do that in the workplace because it can get you in trouble. I enjoy helping people feel that they can go as high and as far as their talents allow.
So your job is about keeping people safe at work? 
Yes, I guess you could say that. We deal with a lot of religious discrimination, too. Complaints about religious discrimination have grown. There’s a lot of diversity in our nation now, and a lot of religious diversity. Religions that we weren’t familiar with in the past we must quickly become much more familiar with. After September 11 [2001] there was a huge backlash against Arab Americans, innocent individuals who minded their own business but were being profiled and mistreated because they were Muslims. We have all kinds of religious diversity now. Before, we dealt primarily with Jewish believers or Seventh-day Adventists or Seventh Day Baptists who were not being given religious accommodations by their employers. But now it’s getting much more diverse, and the accommodations range from headwear to dresswear and to other reflections of different practices and beliefs.
What’s your least favorite part of the job? 
My least favorite part of the job is the long hours. I’m very privileged: When the president tells you, “I want you to run the agency,” and it’s part of the civil rights movement, it’s a very important agency. But it’s also a very demanding job. I have to spend a lot of time traveling. We have 51 offices all over the United States. I get many speaking invitations. The hardest part of the job is figuring out how I can do the most good in the time that I have. The EEOC receives about 1 million calls a year, and we actually talk to about 300,000 employees or workers. Of those, we take in about 80,000 complaints, and in many of those cases we try to investigate or mediate and resolve a difficult dispute. We actually take about 370 cases a year to court to try to fight discrimination in the workplace—disability cases, race cases, pregnancy discrimination, gender issues, religious discrimination.
Are the people who come to you really upset about their situations? 
1515 page27We see a lot of personal crisis here because we’re dealing with people’s lives. The people who come here are often consumed by their mistreatment. Discrimination is like an illness. Some of the people we try to help are so affected and consumed by what’s happening to them that they seem ill. They tremble when they talk. They can’t sleep at night. We want to help them for sure, but we also want to get ahead of the curve and do outreach and education to keep bad things from happening to other people.
Do you ever struggle with balancing your beliefs as an Adventist with the demands of the job? 
It’s a challenge because a lot of the activities of this job fall on Friday nights. With these types of jobs, the expectations of many people are that you just have to be available 24/7. This role is giving me an opportunity to educate them. They know what my beliefs are. They know that if there’s something that I have to do, they have to get to me before a certain time of the day on Friday. I’ll give you an example: I had a labor union that was asking me to meet with them, and they wanted to meet Sabbath morning. And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I’m happy to meet with you, but I can’t meet with you, ’cause you don’t want to go to church with me!” It’s sometimes difficult to stand up for your beliefs, but I think it’s important to tell others what you believe and to educate them.
Has it been a good experience working for the EEOC? 
It has been; it really has been. You know, when the president invites you to the Oval Office and asks, “How are you doing, Cari?” that’s a wonderful privilege, particularly for me. You may know that I came from Cuba as a youngster, and that my family were political refugees. I had to grow up real fast. And for someone like me with a very humble background to be able to rise to the highest levels of public office—why, that
could happen only in America!
Would you encourage other Adventists to work for the government? 
I would. I was very encouraged to hear that there are a lot more Adventists serving now in government office and public service than there have been in the past. I think it’s a very noble mission. It’s important for us to be part of a process, part of a society that allows us to express ourselves. That allows us to minister and to talk about our faith. The hard part is stepping out as Jesus did. He didn’t just go into the synagogue. He was out there preaching on the mount, and talking to the tax collectors. I think we need to use more of that model in order to be perceived as the type of Christians that we are. We’re caring, open-minded Christians.