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On Civil Rights at USDA, and the Secretary’s Reflections

Two weeks ago Secretary Vilsack took a moment to share some of his thoughts about USDA’s sad history on civil rights and the progress we have made to put it behind us.  I was not surprised to see the outpouring of thoughts and comments that blog post inspired, including many from USDA employees. 

These comments represented a wide range of personal experiences and opinions.  But the message that came through – loud and clear – is how many people at USDA and around the nation share Secretary Vilsack’s and my commitment to making civil rights a priority for the Department. 

However, some of the comments to his post referenced problems at today’s USDA or made allegations of discrimination.  The Office of Civil Rights takes these accusations seriously.  And because we consider these personal and confidential in nature, I have directed my staff to reach out individually to respond to those postings.  Of course, employees experiencing trouble can always reach out to my office, at 202-720-3808 or to the Employee Assistance Program hotline at 800-222-0364. 

I hope that moving forward we can continue the dialogue on diversity and equality here at USDA.  I have seen firsthand that the vast majority of USDA employees treat each other and our customers with dignity and respect.  Under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, the Department has taken important steps forward, and I hope that I will be able to continue to drive this progress so we truly enter a new era for civil rights at USDA.

8 Responses to “On Civil Rights at USDA, and the Secretary’s Reflections”

  1. JS says:

    It’s a bit discouraging to continual see references to, “USDA’s sad history on civil rights” or the Department I work for called the “Last Plantation.” I do understand the unfortunate events that led to Pigford v. Glickman. Services should never be withheld based on prohibited criteria. I have no doubt there have been, and currently are, cases of employee and program discrimination. But USDA is an organization with over 100,000 employees and comprised of ~17 agencies with distinct and different missions. It’s a vast organization and unfair for the sins of some to be held against the balance of the Department in perpetuity.

    We have a variety of mechanisms to address workplace concerns from grievance procedures, to MSPB and EEO complaints, OSC and OIG complaints and wealth of other avenues to address our concerns. We at USDA place a significant focus on civil rights through mandatory training, policy statements, education and in a number of other ways.

    I have worked for APHIS for a little over 21 years. The actual number of program and employment complaints are statistically insignificant (to the best of my knowledge) compared to the number of employees in our workforce and the number of contacts we make with the public. Few, if any, result in a finding of discrimination on an annual basis.

    So while it is important to remember problems with unlawful discrimination perpetrated by former or current USDA employees we should also not paint with a broad brush. Hold everyone accountable but be aware that the majority of USDA employees at all levels of the organization find discrimination repugnant and are willing to address issues as they arise.

  2. RM says:

    Is this discrimination?

    In 2009 I was fined for having noxious weeds on CRP and another person that I know of was not. We were both turned in by the Seward County Weed Authority. We both had noxious weeds. The person who was not fined was related to a USDA employee and as far as I know is in good health.

    I have been disabled by West Nile Virus since October, 2008. I was hospitalized by West Nile Virus from October 2008 to May 2009 and am still disabled by the loss of one eye and limited vision in the other. I am still working on regaining use of my left side because of paralysis.

    In 2008 before I had West Nile Virus I told the FSA office I had weeds and I didn’t know what they were. I was offered no assistance in weed identification. I went on my own to the local coop but before I could set up a control program I was stricken with West Nile Virus; which stopped everything.

    I feel like I have been treated differently and discrimated against.

    Should I have filed a complaint?

  3. ARS in Alaska says:

    The reason “Few, if any (complaints), result in a finding of discrimination on an annual basis.” is because when the USDA settles with a complainant the case is misleadingly coded as “Dismissed”. It would be much more transparent if it were called what it is-Settled. In my experience, settlement only happens once an EEOC judge has accepted the case, and it takes 4 to 5 years to get to that point. The administrative complaint procedure is merely a delay tactic to wear one down. No attempt what-so-ever is made to resolve any issues. This was what happened in my case and 4 others of which I am much too aware. Believe me, one has to have nerves of steel and a rock solid case, with years of documentation and several witnesses. All we get is a pittance of a settlement that really does nothing to solve the tolerance of discriminatory managers within the USDA Agricultural Research Service. It is more than a bit discouraging and it is hushed up and hidden.

  4. APHIS says:

    I don’t work for ARS. Our agency considers complaints as “settled” regardless of the stage (even before the completion of the informal process if applicable). So your agency experience is not comparable to mine, which really reinforces my point. I’m speaking to my Agency. The region I work in with over 1,300 employees has had as little as 5 formal complaints filed in a year. While some may result in a resolution agreement, many are closed with a finding of no discrimination. The findings of discrimination in the entire agency (several thousand employees) are miniscule from what I can tell (and these days usually tied to not granting reasonable accomodations and disability issues). They are truly rare. That’s because our agency does take complaints seriously and works to address not only the complaints but underlying causes. So I can understand your frustation, but understand that your experience may not be indicative of other agencies or other locations even within your own agency.

    I would agree, the process is unpleasant. Believe it or not that’s true for both parties involved and I have been involved from both sides (whether EEO or Grievance). I hope you find some resolution to any issues you have. But I find the system is not about winning or justice, just resolution. If you’re looking for the former I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for and the ultimate resolution won’t be worth the time you invest in the process. It can be all consuming and take much more than it gives.

    In retrospect if I could change one thing in my time with USDA it is that I would have worked more with the chain of command to resolve issues and not processes. If there is truly no one in your chain of command who is willing to help I would be amazed, but again I’m not familar with your situation.

    So I’ll say again, “I have no doubt there have been, and currently are, cases of employee and program discrimination. But USDA is an organization with over 100,000 employees and comprised of ~17 agencies with distinct and different missions. It’s a vast organization and unfair for the sins of some to be held against the balance of the Department in perpetuity.” I’m sure problems occur in my agency too, but I cannot see it is in any way pervasive and the Agency does try to work with complaints to address their concerns while crafting resolutions that managers find reasonable.

    As far as a program complaint, if you believe the action taken was based on prohibited factors such as race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual’s income is derived from any public assistance program go to:

    http://www.ascr.usda.gov/complaint_filing_program.html.

    It provides information on complaints of program discrimination. The decision is up to you.

  5. PW says:

    Mandatory training?? I was appointed a Special Emphasis Program Manager (SEPM). To this day I have not received any training for this appointment. I feel the area of Civil rights is very important to me and USDA.

  6. Agency Employed says:

    The issue of Civil Rights within the Agency is a greater reflection of a “rural moral majority” that refuses to change with the changing times. I watched the sad, sad, sad saga involving Shirley Sherrod unfold from Texas of all places, a state where it middle and lower class citizen is under attack to fuel the Penal Colony mindset that has infected this states legislative and judicial branches.

    How does an Agency of the federal government become so infected with racism and discrimination that the culture becomes inbedded with the identity of the Agency? In my discussions with long time agency employees, this mindset invaded this agency after the return of veteran’s from World War II. Apparently mostly, white men of rural up bringing became Agency employees and brought with them values that reflected the times and their views.

    Many of these men employed by the Agency after World War II felt that minorities and women had no place in the workplace and let alone at the Agency. As a result the numbers of white males hired with similar mindsets spread throughout the entire agency like a virus. Is this the only contributing factor that has played a part in the checkered history of the USDA’s Civil Rights initiatives?

    The Agency in my opinion was wrong for not vetting Shirley’s comments prior to her speaking engagement. State Director’s are political appointees and need to be acutely aware of their responsibility to the Agency and the nation and should make every effort to structure comments in a manner that paints such a picture.If Mr. Vilsack were going to be speaking at a luncheon or expo would not his prepared remarks be vetted by a staffer? It is sad to say that perhaps Shirley’s ignorance in the ettiquette of public speaking may have contributed to the mass hysteria that followed excerpts of her speech being released.

    The second critical issue that contributed to this recent miscarriage of civil rights at the Agency was the audience to which Shirley’s comments were directed. Shirley knowing the history of our Agency knowingly chose to give a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) in the hopes that her comments would serve to bring a spotlight on her life and history with civil rights related issues. What Shirley and other minorities do not know is that the NAACP a long time ago stop being a political action organization and has become a mouthpiece for the well to do elites of the minority community. The very organization that she presented her speech to was the first to denounce her and her statements. As government employees we must be careful to steer away from special government interest groups whose views conflict with that of the Agency and the nation. Shirley’s comments belonged in a forum for Agency employees, however there is no open forum for discussion on this issue amongst employees so often times Agency “dirty” laundry is aired in public.

    The Agency is a mere reflection of the American social fabric. Our agency has the special mandate to assist rural communities regardless of race and sex and this mandate is one which our nation is depending on. I would like to suggest that as an Agency we take a day out of work schedules to dedicate to mandatory workplace training on discrimination and racism.Incorporate open workplace debate and discussion, Q & A sessions into the training so that people do not feel targeted.

    The agency can and must break down the walls that divide us in the hopes to , ” Unite our rural neighbors for positive results.” As I am an ARRA assistant and my time is up at the Agency due to funding, I would like to say thank you to all the men and women of the Agency that carry out their duties with the utmost pride and professionalism. It is the attitude and spirits of such individuals that truly keep the agency and our nation going strong. While my service to the Agency may be ending I will continue to monitor the situation at the Agency and pray for the best for all people involved. Thank you and GOD bless.

    Agency Employed African American Male

  7. Dwight Honnold says:

    It is true that discrimination is and has been a problem. I do believe times are turning with more inter racel marriages and continued pressure to hire percentage of diverse groups. So many times our government reacts too late then over compensates. I believe that a better hiring guideline would to accept a percentage of echnic groups related to those graduating in each field.
    The emphasis would then be on educating our youth earlier on prospective job areas. I also feel that Agriculture will be better served is each prospect has some on farm experience. This may be in the form of an intern program with current funded clients.
    It is very important that we keep the scale of justice balanced in all areas including racial diversity in relation to our current established citizens.

  8. Retired NRCS Employee says:

    I worked for the agency for 30 years. I did encounter discrimination. Until you get your managers and top manangement to do more than “lip-service”, you will always have this, discrimination, to face. It is very simple, it should be HUMAN RELATIONS and not RACE RELATIONS and the HUMAN RACE and not what race are you? Thank you and GOD bless us all.

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