The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Kalpana Kotagal to fill out the five-member federal commission in charge of investigating employment discrimination.
The vote, which came more than a year after Kotagal’s hearing, was 49-47, along party lines. Her pending appointment was initially stalled in the Senate’s labor committee last year. Kotagal replaces Republican Commissioner Janet Dhillon whose term expired last July.
Kotagal’s confirmation fills a vacancy that solidifies a Democratic majority on the commission led by Chair Charlotte Burrows, who was renominated in 2019. Even with Kotagal’s green light, the agency of 2,000 employees is still without a general counsel to help process a 20% uptick in discrimination charges filed last year.
All employers, including federal agencies, are subject to anti-discrimination laws, giving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission broad jurisdiction and its rulemaking affects millions of workers. The newly complete commission will have plenty to consider.
In January, the EEOC met to discuss threats to employment rights posed by artificial intelligence and automated technology. And last month, the commission began taking up complaints under the newly passed Pregnant Workers Fairness Act while resolving ongoing issues pertaining to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility programs. That effort faced backlash from Republicans in Congress who opposed Kotagal’s nomination as a furtherance of these policies.
Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina and chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement the commission has been “marred by mismanagement” under a Democratic majority that has turned the agency into “a partisan attack dog.”
Conservatives, including the president of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, also brought up concerns that U.S. businesses and employers would be hindered by increasingly stringent regulatory burdens imposed by the commission.
However, by its nature, the agency is supposed to be independent and apolitical, and its commissioners must hold a majority vote on substantive regulations.
Meanwhile, Kotagal got broad support from civil rights groups and legal centers that praised her record of enforcing equal pay laws, protections for pregnant workers and disabled veterans, and settlements over sexual harassment and abuse.
Kotagal has worked as a lawyer for Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a firm specializing in large-scale class action suits.
“The goal of equal opportunity in the workplace is a lofty one, but an essential one,” she said during a confirmation hearing in May last year. “Workplaces that are free from discrimination benefit more than just their employees; they also benefit those employees’ families and communities and contribute directly to an innovative and dynamic American economy.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.