Meeting of July 22, 2008 - Issues Facing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in the Federal Workplace
Chair Earp, Vice Chair, Commissioners, Colleagues, and Friends,
It is a great honor and privilege to have the opportunity to appear as a witness and submit this statement regarding the lack of equal opportunity for Asian employees in the federal sector. Towards that end, I will share my experiences as an Asian employee in the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
I was born in India. I received my Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Calcutta with first class honors in Agricultural Sciences. In 1961, I came to the University of Missouri and received my Master of Science degree in 1962. In 1966, I earned my Ph.D. in Agricultural Extension Administration from the University of Missouri.
Following my academic completion, I joined the faculty of Colorado State University with a teaching assignment at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, West Africa. In 1969 I accepted a position with the Cooperative Extension Service, West Virginia University, where I worked until 1976.
In 1977, I came to work for USDA as the Deputy Director of Civil Rights for Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) and in 1980 became the Director of the Civil Rights Division for the Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS), where I served for 17 years. From 2005 I served as a Senior Executive Service Special Assistant to the Chief, NRCS, for Outreach and Diversity until I retired in June, 2007 following 38 years of federal service. As a result of my long service in the field of civil rights at USDA, I believe I am appropriately informed to be able to share with you the problems in equal opportunity and civil rights.
What my experience at USDA shows is that Asians are systematically shut out from upper level managerial positions. The written application is a response to the technical requirements of the job and focuses on education and experience. This is the most objective part of the hiring process. However, to neutralize this consistent advantage of Asian employees, USDA agencies utilize interviews of candidates (the most subjective part of the hiring process) and mark down the Asian employees with statements like “did not respond clearly.” Then the USDA Agencies justify the selection of individuals who are patently less qualified in the technical aspect of the job with subjective remarks like “the selectee showed better leadership qualities” even in positions that is not supervisory or managerial.
I personally filed complaints of discrimination, beginning in April, 1994, for continuing denial of promotion and non-selection to many SES positions, despite having successfully completed USDA’s SES Candidate Development Program and certification by the USOPM as qualified for the SES cadre. From 1994 to 1999, I applied for positions in NRCS and saw individuals of lesser education and experience who had not been certified by OPM as SESCDP graduates get the SES jobs.
Filing a complaint of discrimination brought retaliation from my managers. I filed complaints of retaliation and even EEOC ruled that the Agency had indeed retaliated against me. I personally met with the Director, Office of Civil Rights, and asked for intervention based on EEOC’s ruling and other evidence to support my claim.
There was no action taken by the Office of Civil Rights. Even after that finding, the agency continued to retaliate by changing my title as Acting Director of Civil Rights. Thereafter, the retaliation became more conspicuous when I was forced out of my duties to a non-supervisory specialist position outside civil rights. For further reprisals, the NRCS even filed charges for criminal investigation by the USDA, OIG, who found no evidence of any criminal acts of any criminal acts by the incumbent in the position as Director of Civil Rights Division.
Finally, based on continuing reprisals and harassment from 1994 to 1999, and a rising crescendo from other Asian employees from different USDA agencies who experienced similar situations, in November 1999 I filed a class complaint, Arun C. Basu, et al v. Veneman.
It was not easy for me to take this step. The leaders of the established employee organization Asian Pacific Americans in Agriculture (APANA) refused to provide any support. As a result I organized and established a new organization called the Organization of South Asian Americans in Agriculture (OSAAA) and many of the officers and members of APANA joined the organization. However, when OSAAA’s officers voted to support my class complaint, there were individuals who asked for their membership to be cancelled, indicating that they did not want to be a part of an organization that would support the class complaint.
In 1999, once I filed the complaint, the Director, Office of Civil Rights refused to even talk to the EEO Counselor. The Department refused to consider engaging in mediation efforts. In fact, while the class complaint was at EEOC for a determination of certification, NRCS, represented by two attorneys from the Office of General Counsel, asked me to engage in mediation to settle my individual complaint and offered me a substantial sum of money to settle the case.
Initially, EEOC the Administrative Judge did not certify the class. We appealed to the Office of Federal Operations, which overruled the ruling of the AJ and granted provisional certification pending the class finding an acceptable counsel. Following the EEOC certification, instead of engaging in any effort to resolve the complaint, USDA secured the services of a private law firm to represent it in this matter. We were confronted with a variety of legal actions from five attorneys of the law firm. I suppose the thinking was that if they threw heavyweight legal counsel at us we would crumple.
Of all the class complaints that have been filed against USDA, this is the only one that has been resolved. The Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Mr. Vernon Parker, was given the green light by the Office of General Counsel to settle this case, because it determined that USDA was vulnerable. After seven years this case was settled, which resulted in my promotion to SES ranks retroactively. It also provided relief to many others.
The Agreement between USDA and the Basu class outlined specific actions to be implemented. To ensure that these requirements were actually fulfilled by the agencies, it was agreed that the Office of Civil Rights would hire and appoint a GS-15 to serve as a monitor/coordinator. One person was hired to this position but left within a short while. Since then the position has been vacant and assigned to others as a collateral responsibility. The biggest failure on the part of the Office of Civil Rights is that it does not conduct any compliance reviews of these agencies, even when there is evidence of problems.
However, the attitudes of upper management, the treatment of Asian employees, and the continued failure to address this situation perpetuates the climate of discrimination. This systematic discriminatory conduct is most blatant in the Food Safety Inspection Service.
Let me share a few examples:
One individual who filed a complaint of discrimination in 1995 still has not had final resolution. Because of the lengthy process, he wrote to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Mr. Vernon Parker, and asked for relief. What was particularly egregious in this situation was that he had received a written offer from the Office of Civil Rights, listing what the agency had agreed to do to resolve the complaint. Following this written offer, the agency did not respond to any of this individual’s phone calls or office visits. Based on this information, the Assistant Secretary promised to intercede on his behalf with his agency. The Assistant Secretary also informed the Director, Office of Civil Rights that he was attempting to resolve this complaint. Based on his efforts the agency submitted an offer to settle, which Mr. Parker determined was insufficient. However, while Mr. Parker was negotiating with the agency, the Director, Office of Civil Rights issued a Final Agency Decision with a no finding of discrimination. This is still on appeal to the EEOC, but it is indicative of poor process control. The situation with managers got so bad that this individual applied for a position at a lower grade just to escape the ongoing discrimination and continuing reprisals. The position he applied for and was selected for is in another state. Now he is being told that he will not be given any relocation costs since the agency was doing him a favor.
Another individual at the Washington office was being transferred to an office in Georgia. Because of this individual’s poor health, his wife’s employment, and his son’s college education, he asked to be transferred to an office in Maryland. There were numerous vacancies in Maryland he was applying for and was making the list of best qualified candidates. He also asked for Mr. Parker’s intervention. In spite of the pleas of the Assistant Secretary, the agency insisted that it would transfer him to Maryland on the condition that he accepts a down-grade.
This same agency advertised for a technical position which required a 4 year college degree. One individual applied for this position with 2 Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in the technical field that was advertised. In addition, he was a leader in this field with extensive research and articles to his credit. The agency selected an individual without a college degree. When the individual filed a complaint of discrimination the agency justified the selection and said there was no discrimination. He also became the target for further discrimination and retaliation.
Routine retaliation and reprisals are rampant against employees in USDA and have become a norm and a management practice at all Agencies in defiance of civil right laws and regulations. So far we have only talked about the failures at USDA in the area of employment.
For many years, USDA has shown under-participation of Asians in employment. Currently, USDA shows Asian participation in its permanent workforce at 2.36%. Unlike the calculation of employment of Hispanics, which excludes the numbers in Puerto Rico, USDA does not exclude the numbers in Hawaii, thereby skewing it in its favor. Forest Service, the largest agency in USDA with more than 30,000 employees, has a meager 1.65% Asian employment despite having Region 5 which includes California and its abundant Asian population. Farm Service Agency shows Asian employment at a mere 1.27% of its workforce. National Finance Center has a shockingly low 1.65% Asian employment. Rural Development has Asian representation of only 1.98%. Asian employment at the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, the agency where I worked for 28 years, has been declining for years and stands at a paltry 1.11%. Despite submitting such analysis to the leadership and speaking about it at the highest levels, the agency has shown no commitment to change its hiring and promotion practices. Only two agencies reflect better numbers. Agricultural Research Service shows 5.9% Asian employment and Food Safety Inspection Service reflects 3.66% Asian employment. The statistics cited above are officially reported by USDA to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its annual MD-715 Report. This report is submitted by the agencies to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights prior to submission to the EEOC. Yet there is no effort made by the Assistant Secretary to bring some change to this situation.
The Executive Summary of USDA’s MD-715 Report shows that Asians are under-represented in five of seven major occupations. Asians are employed below CLF rates in six of the seven major occupations – Forestry Technician (1.0% compared with 8.4% in CLF); Loan Specialist (0.9% compared with 3.1% in the CLF); General Business and Industry (1.2% compared with 4.9% in the CLF); Information Technology Specialist (4.5% compared with 10.3% in the CLF); Food Inspection (1.5% compared with 2.9% in the CLF); and General Biological Science (2.7% compared with 8.4% in the CLF).
Despite this bleak situation, none of the agencies show any particular activity planned or in place to increase Asian employment. The barrier analysis portion of the NRCS MD-715 report reads in part as follows: “Not all agency leaders are committed to ensuring a diverse workforce…Some agency leaders and selecting officials make decisions based on preconceived ideas about people. There are no measures in place to keep leaders accountable when they act on their preconceived opinions.” (Emphasis added).
The thrust of my statement has two prongs – one is that Asians are severely under-represented in USDA and are victims of discrimination, harassment and abuse. The other is that the Departmental Civil Rights Program, whether under the structure of the previous Office of Civil Rights or under the current Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, is woefully inadequate. For example, in 2006, the USDA Secretary’s Asian American Advisory Council developed and submitted to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights a Strategic Plan with recommended Action Items regarding EEO problems and barriers faced by the Asian employees. To this day it must be sitting on a shelf collecting dust with no follow up actions.
Beyond the poor hiring of Asians in USDA, there is also a climate of discrimination that is particularly troubling. For instance, the disparity in allocation of resources for events conducted in Special Emphasis Programs is easily noticeable. Asian events do not get the same amount of funds to conduct those events as the other groups. Consistently, the position of the Asian Pacific American Coordinator goes unfilled for long periods of time. It is the only Special Emphasis Program Coordinator position that has been occupied at different times by a non-Asian. Attempts to raise this issue with management have fallen on deaf ears.
This disparity is also extended to the support provided to Asian employee organizations as compared to the African American, Hispanic, and women’s groups. Besides the disparate financial support, Asian employees are consistently denied the opportunity to attend the annual Leadership Training Conference conducted by the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC).
The unfortunate situation in USDA is that there is no serious commitment on the part of the leadership to the problems of civil rights and there is no serious attempt to hold upper management accountable for their egregious record in civil rights. The USDA Office of Civil Rights has failed to conduct basic analysis of employment statistics, hiring practices, and other actions of the agencies, even when the information was available. It has failed to conduct any analysis of agency problems as evidenced in the processing of EEO complaints. It has engaged in unfair actions in the manner it adjudicates EEO complaints. On the rare occasion that it made a finding of discrimination, the Office of Civil Rights would inform the agency management that such a finding would be made and suggest that it would be advisable for the agency to settle the complaint. Of course, the result of the agency settling the complaint meant that the complaint would be closed without a finding and consequently with no suggestion of disciplinary action against the wrongdoer.
The political reality is that an Under Secretary of a mission area or an Administrator of an agency has more clout than a SES Director of the Office of Civil Rights in reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Administration. Even under the new structure of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, the office is under-funded, under-staffed, and not engaging in substantive activities. The class complaint I filed was fraught with difficulties. First, with the exception of a handful, it was extremely difficult to get other Asian employees to join the action for their fears of further agency reprisals.
Working in the field of civil rights at USDA meant that we would get a lot of media attention. I do not believe any other federal agency has received as much media attention over the years as USDA has. Unfortunately, the media picture is anything but flattering. Yet the situation continues without much change. In my experience working in the field of civil rights in USDA, there are some key points to be made:
I hope the outcome of these hearings is action to address the needs of Asians in the workplace. As a secondary outcome, it would be wonderful if it helped USDA establish a budget that will allow the Office of the Assistant Secretary to fulfill all its responsibilities competently and independently. In addition, this effort should take action to ensure accountability for civil rights at the highest level of the program agencies. It is the Administrators and upper management of NRCS, FS, FSIS, and others that should be held accountable for the failure to have a fully integrated workforce with a particular group’s participation reflective of its availability. Similarly, questions should be asked why Forest Service and the other agencies are consistently showing such a disregard to equal opportunity and civil rights.
This page was last modified on July 22, 2008.
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