The U.S. Department of Agriculture responds poorly to civil rights complaints by its employees, impeding chances for settlements and creating lengthy delays in investigating claims, according to a new federal study.
The 27-page report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, released late last month, is the latest blow for a department that for decades has been the target of complaints by minorities about a hostile work environment that fosters discrimination against employees and some USDA clients.
"This problem is a problem in the institution," said Lawrence Lucas, president of the Coalition of Minority Employees, a network of 900 USDA workers.
Alisa Harrison, a USDA spokeswoman, said that although some of the commission's findings were based on outdated information, others had led to important changes. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman "really remains committed to a strong civil rights program, and we're working very, very hard to improve it," Harrison said.
The EEOC found that the USDA takes an average of 559 days to decide whether to investigate a discrimination complaint, compared with a government-wide average of 451 days. (In both cases, that is far longer than the 180 days in which agencies are supposed to review complaints and complete their investigations.)
Moreover, the report said, the USDA's Office of General Counsel, which defends the department against complaints, was improperly offering guidance to its Office of Civil Rights, which investigates allegations of discrimination. Such an arrangement "can compromise the neutrality of the administrative process" and interfere with opportunities to settle complaints. EEOC reviewers also found poor oversight of the alternative dispute resolution programs throughout the department that are designed to handle complaints; an ineffective system for tracking cases; and mangled lines of communication between the Office of Civil Rights and the more than two dozen agencies that make up the USDA.
Information-sharing was so disorganized, according to the report, that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service began "engaging in the costly practice of submitting every report to the Office of Civil Rights via Federal Express so they can document which Office of Civil Rights employee received the package, as well as the specific date and time of its receipt."
The report praised the department for pursuing disciplinary action against managers in cases of clear wrongdoing, but urged officials to review management behavior at earlier stages, too.
Harrison said the department has improved communication and implemented a new system to track complaints. Starting this week, there will be a "firewall" between the lawyers who defend the USDA against complaints and the staff members who investigate allegations of wrongdoing, she said. "We feel like we've really addressed a lot of the issues they raised in the report," she said.
EEOC spokesman David B. Grinberg said the commission undertook similar reviews of about 30 federal agencies last year. Officials could not say whether the USDA's problems were worse than others, he said.
"It's something that's routine," Grinberg said of the review.
To Lucas, the minority coalition leader, the report provides evidence of continued shortcomings in a department where many employees feel mistreated. Black farmers prevailed in a $1 billion class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1999 after charging they were denied loans and other services because of their race.
"It's important that they did it because of USDA's pattern and practice of not being responsive," he said of the report.