Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said the measure would help disabled diplomats explain gaps in their service.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said the measure would help disabled diplomats explain gaps in their service. Susan Walsh/AP

Lawmakers Look to Ease Promotion Process for Foreign Service Employees

Measure would particularly help disabled diplomats.

Two House Democrats this week introduced legislation to make it easier for Foreign Service officers at the State Department to receive promotions, focusing on disabled employees forced to take time off for medical or other reasons. 

The Promotion Accessibility Act would allow all Foreign Service officers to submit a “gap memo” to explain any time away from their jobs for review by the deciding board. Such memoranda are currently available to officers in certain circumstances, such as to explain time away from their normal jobs for military service. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the measure would help disabled diplomats explain gaps in their service. Such workers are often unfairly penalized, he said, because they take time off from foreign assignments to seek specialized medical care. Gap memos, he said, would ensure fairness in the promotion process and boost diversity in the diplomatic corps. 

“The State Department has long struggled to adequately promote minority employees, including those with disabilities,” Castro said. “I am committed to ensuring the State Department becomes a more inclusive institution, especially at the management and leadership levels.” 

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who cosponsored the bill, said the measure was critical to U.S. foreign policy interests. 

“The State Department cannot effectively advocate for individuals with disabilities on the international stage if it does not empower those individuals within its own offices and embassies,” Titus said.“This legislation will help ensure that diplomats with disabilities at the State Department have the opportunity to advance their careers.”

Castro’s subcommittee will host two top State officials on Wednesday to discuss diversity and inclusion efforts at the department. State has long faced criticism for its failure to ensure diversity in its ranks, especially within the diplomatic corps. A recent Government Accountability Office report reviewed data from 2002 to 2018 and found “uneven progress” in improving diversity. 

Another GAO report from June found the proportion of State’s workforce who qualified as disabled was the third smallest of any Cabinet-level department, at just 14%. That same report found agencies across government struggle to retain disabled employees, who are disproportionately hired for lower-grade positions. 

The total proportion of racial and ethnic minorities in full-time, permanent positions increased from 28% in fiscal 2002 to 32% in fiscal 2018 with variations among specific races and ethnicities, according to GAO. Over the same period, the number of women at the agency decreased slightly from 44% in 2002 to 43% in 2018. Additionally, with few exceptions, whites and men had the highest promotion rates and held the majority of leadership positions among the career service and Foreign Service. President Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, vowed upon his swearing in to improve diversity in the Foreign Service, noting that just 12% of Foreign Service officers were people of color. Current Secretary Mike Pompeo made similar comments during his confirmation hearing.