Federal leaders debate workforce diversity issues

klunney@govexec.com

The number of minorities in government rose steadily throughout the last decade, but a number of hurdles still need to be cleared before real progress can be made in workforce diversity, according to speakers at the Blacks in Government (BIG) conference Wednesday.

Representatives from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), joined Gerald R. Reed, the national president of Blacks in Government, in a discussion on increasing workforce diversity and streamlining the EEO complaint process.

Ida L. Castro, head of the EEOC, and the first Latina to hold the position, was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech, but was detained by Hurricane Debby in Puerto Rico. Carlton Hadden, director of EEOC's office of federal operations, moderated the discussion and read part of Castro's remarks.

"Overall, the federal government has made slow, in some cases, very slow, but steady progress improving the representation of minorities, women, and the disabled in the last thirty years," Castro said in her remarks.

She said that Hispanics, however, continue to be the most underrepresented minority in federal government. Beyond mere representation, the EEOC is also trying to address the disproportionate numbers of women, minorities, and disabled employees working at low grades, Castro said.

Castro acknowledged that the current complaint process in the federal sector is too long-more than 1,300 days compared to 276 days in the private sector-and said even with an increased workload, the Commission and its stakeholders must find ways to make the process more efficient.

John U. Sepulveda, deputy director of OPM echoed Castro's sentiment that the federal government has made strides in hiring more minorities, but said there is much room for improvement.

"We are not where we should be, but I'm proud we are making progress," he said.

Sepulveda said the number of blacks at the GS-13, 14, and 15 levels increased by a little over 7,000 between September 1993 and September 1999. During the same period, the percent of blacks serving in the senior executive service rose from 5.4 percent to just over nine percent.

A BIG panel participant said the group's focus should be on the type of high-grade level jobs blacks are getting, not just the grade alone. At the same time, BIG would like to see more accountability for managers who are guilty of discrimination, she said. The government's practice of paying the liability insurance for managers accused of discrimination doesn't help toward that end, she said.

John Palguta, director of policy and evaluation at MSPB, voiced concern over the different perceptions of the level of flagrant discrimination in the federal workplace. Palguta said that in 1993, 55 percent of blacks thought flagrant discrimination was a problem in their office, while only four percent of whites agreed with that assessment. Palguta said those numbers have remained virtually the same today-54 percent of blacks view discrimination as a problem in their workplace versus three percent of whites.

"Perceptions may or may not be based on reality," said Palguta. He said agencies need to collectively agree on how a "merit-based, discrimination-free workplace operates."

The Blacks in Government National Training Conference, which continues through Friday, August 25, at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., includes training workshops, forums, and meetings on issues impacting government workers. Workshops on the discrimination complaint process and class-action lawsuits were held yesterday afternoon.

During the conference, EEOC plans to introduce an initial version of an EEO computer based training compact disc which explains the complaint process in plain language. The CD will be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.

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