Opportunities For Hispanics Under Review

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Social Security Administration are launching a study group to better understand the problems that Hispanics face in getting hired and promoted in the government.

Naomi C. Earp, chairman of the EEOC, and Michael J. Astrue, the Social Security commissioner, announced the formation of the working group yesterday. It will be led by Veronica Villalobos, an adviser to Earp.

Federal employment reports have consistently described Hispanics as underrepresented in the government compared with the nation's labor force. Of the 2.6 million people in the government, 7.74 percent are Hispanic, the EEOC estimates.

But Hispanics make up less than 4 percent of federal executives, and some data reviewed by the EEOC suggest that the careers of many Hispanics get stuck at the General Schedule grade 11, which makes it difficult for them to qualify for programs that groom federal leaders.

Although concerns about Hispanic employment in the government have been expressed for at least three decades, EEOC officials say it is time to review issues and obstacles confronting Hispanics because of the nation's shifting demographics and the substantial turnover projected at many agencies because of the baby-boom retirement wave.

The study group hopes to pull together preliminary recommendations by August for presentation at a national EEOC conference. Officials hope to draw on Social Security's successful efforts in recruiting Hispanics and turn them into models for other agencies.

Members of the study group include Milton Belardo of the Commerce Department, Nancy Bosque of Social Security, Delia L. Johnson of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Nicolas Juarez of the U.S. Postal Service, Isabel Kaufman of the Justice Department, Eugenio Ochoa Sexton of the Department of Homeland Security, Beatrice Pacheco of the Transportation Department, Jesse D. Solis of the Air Force and Ram¿n Sur¿s Fern¿ndez of the Labor Department. All have expertise in civil rights, equal opportunity and diversity issues.

Billing Foul Up at OPM

A computer program error has created a $24.9 million headache at the Office of Personnel Management, and officials are billing federal agencies for that amount so that payments can be made to contractors who conduct background investigations on federal employees and government contractors.

The error was discovered and corrected in January and involved the processing of background investigations primarily during fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2008, OPM spokeswoman Susan Bryant said in an e-mail. The billing snarl was caused by a computer system programming change made in 2006.

OPM processes as many as 20,000 bills each day related to background checks, which are used to determine whether federal employees and contractors should be granted security clearances. The computer error affected less than 1 percent of the billing transactions, Bryant said.

The OPM investigations program operates an up to $1 billion "revolving fund" that is used to finance background investigations. Agencies request a background investigation, and OPM sends them a bill, based on rates that vary according to the type of investigation. An initial top secret clearance costs about $3,700, while an investigation for a secret clearance costs about $200.

But adjustments to the standard charges are made if agencies request additional work or information or if an investigation gets called off. The computer error that OPM discovered related to certain types of billing adjustments, Bryant said.

Computers that track the processing of an investigation failed to relay information to the computers used to send bills to agencies, she said. OPM discovered that adjusted bills were not being properly relayed during a scheduled audit. Officials manually rechecked each of the transactions and are reconciling agency bills and contractor payments.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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