The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

Report finds ‘many obstacles to achieving equality’ for black federal employees

Imagine Uncle Sam officiating a track meet where one team has a clear inside lane, while the others have to jump one hurdle after another.

That’s the image invoked by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report that cites “many obstacles to achieving equality for African Americans in the federal workforce.”

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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One big problem is federal agencies do too little to enforce laws and regulations against racial bias within their own shops.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees federal workplace issues, said “one of the most significant problems is that federal agencies simply do not follow the law. Too few agencies have comprehensive diversity and inclusion plans required by Executive Order 13583, and too many agencies fail to comply with EEOC directives. In addition, the EEOC itself has suffered from long-term underfunding and understaffing over the past decade, and these problems will now be exacerbated by sequestration.”

The EEOC said its document is not “a traditional report with findings and conclusions of the EEOC.” Instead, it is meant to “memorialize the obstacles and recommendations identified by our dialogue partners,” which included organizations of black federal workers, women and others.

The impediments, according to the report, “were independently and repeatedly identified by our dialogue partners as the most formidable obstacles to equal employment opportunities for African Americans in the federal sector.”

The obstacles include individual and unconscious bias and structural impediments, which together result in a form of racism Uncle Sam would like to think he is beyond. Of the seven obstacles identified by the consulting organizations, including Blacks in Government (BIG) and the African American Federal Executives Association, it is the last one — which deals with enforcement issues — that is the most disturbing.

“This is an excellent report,” said William A. Brown, president of the executives association. “The EEOC has captured in one place perceptions, facts and suggested actions regarding major obstacles hindering equal opportunities for African Americans in the federal workforce. Rather than prescribe a particular solution, the report identifies various actions that collectively can improve opportunities. A great value to the report is that it offers a menu of actions providing managers and executives with a road map to equality.”

The seven obstacles cited in the report:

●“Unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector.”

●“African Americans lack adequate mentoring and networking opportunities for higher-level and management positions.”

●“Insufficient training and development assignments perpetuate inequalities in skills and opportunities for African Americans.”

●“Narrow recruitment methods negatively impact African Americans.”

●“The perception of widespread inequality among African Americans in the federal work force hinders their career advancement.”

●“Educational requirements create obstacles for African Americans in the federal work force.”

●“EEO regulations and laws are not adequately followed by agencies and are not effectively enforced.”

The last issue points to a form of structural, institutional and embedded bias that is not easily changed by sensitivity training, although that also is needed.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, plans to review the report and how well the executive order is working.

“As government watchdogs, it is the subcommittee’s responsibility to make sure that federal agencies comply with the rules on the books,” he said.

One reason the laws and rules aren’t followed, according to the report: “There is an overall lack of commitment by agency heads to ensuring equal employment opportunities.”

Behind that is an EEOC that “lacks teeth” to fight discrimination, the report said. It recommends the agency “should seek legal authority to order punishment for responsible management officials.”

The Coalition for Change, which fights federal workplace discrimination, has vigorously pushed for supervisors to be held accountable when they don’t follow the law. One of the biggest problems “is the government’s continued failure to impose discipline on public officials who break civil rights and whistleblower protection laws,” said Tanya Ward Jordan, the coalition’s founder. “Until such corrective measures are implemented, the administration will continue to study the problem while yielding zero results, all at the taxpayer’s expense.”

No party at 100

The Labor Department celebrated its 50th and 75th anniversaries with formal affairs. But when it turned 100 earlier this month, it didn’t even have a cake.

“We began exploring centennial options at a time when the nation was in recovery from an economic recession,” said Carl Fillichio, a department spokesman. “It just didn’t make sense at the time for the agency that works on behalf of America’s working people to stage a black-tie event, even though that’s what had been done for the 50th and 75th anniversary of the department.”

So instead of a black-tie event, department employees received a letter from acting Secretary Seth D. Harris on March 4, the anniversary date, encouraging them to watch a video marking the centennial.

“Hardship and resilience are woven into our DNA,” he wrote.

“So it is somehow fitting, if not ideal, that our centennial falls at this moment as we confront the burden of so-called ‘sequestration.’ These automatic spending cuts are in the process of being implemented, and we face the very difficult task of doing our work with even fewer resources. . . . Under the circumstances, I am keenly aware that many of us do not feel the spirit of celebration that a historic occasion like our centennial should inspire.”

The staff didn’t even get a bag of popcorn to go with the video.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
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