The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission would be combined with another agency that audits federal contracts for possible discriminatory practices under President Donald Trump's budget proposal. Credit: David Zalubowski/Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s budget claims to “focus on the forgotten American worker.” But when it comes to protecting the American worker from job discrimination, the focus is on cuts.

A savings of $17 million doesn’t even make up a whole drop in the bucket of Trump’s multitrillion-dollar budget proposal. But it’s a deep cut for the small civil rights agency that monitors discrimination and diversity efforts among companies receiving federal contracts.

The proposal would cut the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ budget by 16 percent and slash its full-time staff by 131 positions. That could mean closing offices and scaling back audits of federal contractors, said Patrick Patterson, who served as the agency’s deputy director until Trump’s inauguration.

As a result, he said, “taxpayer dollars will be used to hire federal contractors that don’t comply with the civil rights laws. Taxpayer dollars will be used, in effect, to discriminate.”

Funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – which investigates complaints of job discrimination and harassment across the country – would remain flat. But because of increasing costs, it would mean losing 130 positions, putting the commission down 249 employees compared with fiscal year 2016.

Trump’s budget also calls for combining the two civil rights agencies.

“Integration of these two agencies will reduce operational redundancies, promote efficiencies, improve services to citizens, and strengthen civil rights enforcement,” the budget states.

“It’s extremely troubling,” said Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice for the National Women’s Law Center. “This is an attempt to really undercut civil rights enforcement and make it more difficult to … protect people from discrimination.”

The proposed merger might please the conservative Heritage Foundation, which called the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs “redundant and a poor use of tax dollars.” But it has united civil rights advocacy groups and business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in opposition to the move.

Groups including the Paralyzed Veterans of America worry that the unique powers of the office would be lost in a merger. The agency, for example, is the only one that holds federal contractors accountable for increasing workforce diversity, including recruiting and hiring disabled veterans.

“We’re afraid that that will just go away,” said Susan Prokop, the group’s senior associate advocacy director.

The larger Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mainly reacts to individual complaints, while audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs look at a company’s overall employment practices.

Advocates say that helps the office discover hiring and pay disparities, which can be difficult for individual workers to identify and complain about. The smaller agency made headlines this year for its discrimination lawsuits against big tech companies such as Oracle, Google and Palantir.

It also has targeted employment tests that discriminate against people of color and women.

Business groups and Republican lawmakers lambaste both agencies for being too aggressive.

Employers worry that a merger could combine their powers and morph into a more intrusive anti-discrimination watchdog, said Chris Chrisbens, an attorney with the firm Jackson Lewis, representing employers. Perhaps not under Trump, he said, but “the potential is much scarier in a subsequent Democratic administration.”

“Once the arguments become clear to the Trump administration, I think they will back off of this,” Chrisbens said. “I’m not sure the Trump administration quite has its mind around what OFCCP is.”

Will Evans can be reached at wevans@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.

Will Evans is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering labor and tech. His reporting has prompted government investigations, legislation, reforms and prosecutions. A series on working conditions at Amazon warehouses was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Gerald Loeb Award. His work has also won multiple Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, including for a series on safety problems at Tesla. Other investigations have exposed secret spying at Uber, illegal discrimination in the temp industry and rampant fraud in California's drug rehab system for the poor. Prior to joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.