Federal Diary: Government Lags in Hiring of Latinos

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Latino Americans may be the nation's fastest-growing minority group, but they're also the most underrepresented among civilian federal employees. As of last September, Hispanics accounted for about 8 percent of the total civilian federal workforce, according to the Office of Personnel Management. That's well below the 13.2 percent of Hispanics in the national civilian labor force, according to Labor Department statistics.

Of the 25 largest government agencies, 17 saw modest increases in Hispanic hires in fiscal 2008 over fiscal 2007, with most being made at the lower- and mid-level General Schedule levels. At higher levels of government, Hispanics accounted for 3.6 percent of the Senior Executive Service during fiscal 2008, according to OPM figures.

The overall Latino hiring disparity is equivalent to more than 100,000 jobs or roughly $5.5 billion in salaries, according to Gilbert Sandate, chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government. His group has met with White House and OPM officials to discuss the issue.

Put another way, practically every new hire in the federal government would have to be Hispanic to make up the difference between the population size and the numbers represented in the government civilian workforce, said Jorge E. Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives.

Nobody is advocating such a move, and regardless, most Hispanic leaders that track the issue are pleased with what the Obama administration has done so far to address their concerns.

"We are encouraged by the enthusiasm and some of the things that they want to do, that they hope to do in terms of addressing this issue," Sandate said.

Hispanic activists applauded Obama's decision to appoint Hilda L. Solis as labor secretary and Ken Salazar to lead the Interior Department. The White House counts at least 43 Senate-confirmed government officials of Hispanic origin (including ambassadors and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor), a number higher than at the same point in the Clinton and Bush administrations. More than 30 other Latinos work on the White House staff, three of whom participate in the daily senior staff meetings, according to White House officials.

Those senior Latino officials should help recruitment efforts at lower levels of government, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"One of the things we do know, and it's not surprising, is that when we have Latinos as Cabinet secretaries, we have increases in Hispanic hires," he said.

"It really comes down to a commitment from the senior-most individuals at these agencies, in this case Cabinet secretaries and directors, that they make a commitment to diversifying the workforce. It has to come from the top," Vargas said.

The OPM is working to develop a new strategy to address hiring diversity, said Elizabeth A. Montoya, the agency's chief of staff. But observers said the OPM can only do so much because it lacks the ability to enforce its hiring suggestions or hold agencies accountable.

"The federal agencies are left to self-police themselves," Sandate said. "While it's true that OPM asks the individual agencies to submit annual reports, there are no consequences whatsoever if they've done good or bad. As a result, Hispanics continue to be the only underrepresented group in the federal workforce."

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