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Presentation at USDA
October 3, 2007

Good morning. Thank you, Ms. Ho, for your kind introduction. It is wonderful to be here with you all this morning. I know you were all looking forward to hearing Commissioner Griffin speak to you today; I am honored to be here in her stead. Christine regrets very much that she could not be here in person, but send her very best regards. The remarks Chris prepared in anticipation of today’s event are important, so I will endeavor to do justice to them this morning.

In speaking with Chris about today’s address, she made clear that while it is nice that USDA is recognizing National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it is much more important that today’s program be only the beginning. She emphasized to me that she no longer wants to be involved with ‘fluff’ events, and therefore only wants to address groups that intend to take action. Based on the comments of Acting Secretary Conner, it seems like we’re in the right place. I know Chris will certainly enjoy following up with USDA, to see what progress has been made, since today’s “Call to Action.”

Although I am not an expert on the issue of the employment of individuals with disabilities, I do know quite a bit about our government and how it works. Issues of equality in employment, no matter what group we’re talking about, is something I’ve worked to further for decades. I share Commissioner Griffin’s concern about the dismal performance of the federal government when it comes to employing people with targeted, or what she calls severe, disabilities. People with severe disabilities have not fared well in the federal government – and we’re supposed to be the model employer.

As a result of her concern about this, Commissioner Griffin has been the driving force behind the EEOC’s LEAD Initiative. Through LEAD, which stands for Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities, Commissioner Griffin and her staff have been working to draw attention to this critical issue. As we talk today, I will share with you some of the LEAD activities we are currently working on.


The theme of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “Worker’s With Disabilities – Talent for a Winning Team.” This is a great theme, as it actually highlights what is probably the biggest barrier faced by people with disabilities – the perception of talent. Time and again, people with disabilities are judged to be less qualified – less talented, if you will – than those without a disability. This is evident in the numbers of people with disabilities actually employed, as well as their rate of promotion, average pay grade, etc.

Although Secretary Conner offered many federal sector statistics about people with disabilities in his comments, I think they bear repeating, given the gravity of the situation. From the FY 2006 Annual Report on the Federal Workforce we know that:

  • The participation rate for people with severe disabilities government-wide was only 0.94% in FY06. That’s 24,442 in a federal workforce of more than 2.6 million. We hit a high of 1.24% in FY93, if you can call less than 33,000 people in a workforce of almost 2.7 million a high.
  • The government as a whole has been declining in this area since FY93. In fact, right now the population of people with targeted disabilities in the federal government is less than it was in 1984. Clearly, the government as a whole has significant work to do.
  • From FY 1997 to FY 2006, the total federal workforce increased by 135,732 employees, which represents an increase of 5.48%. During this same ten year period, the number of employees with targeted disabilities decreased from 28,671 to 24,442, which represents a decrease of -14.75%. In other words, in the last ten years the federal government workforce has increased 5.48% overall, but we still managed to lose 14.75% of the population of people with targeted disabilities during this same time period.
  • Of the individual targeted disabilities, we know that –
    • The change in numbers was most dramatic for those with severe or intellectual impairments (also referred to as mental retardation in various publications). Over the ten year period of FY 1997 to FY 2006, this group saw a decrease of 34.54%.
    • The next are those with missing extremities. This group saw a decrease of 25.86% in their numbers, over the same ten year period. Given the hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded service members returning home with missing extremities, this is particularly troublesome.
    • The population decrease for the deaf community was -20.90% between FY97 and FY06. Currently, there are 4,460 deaf individuals working in the federal government. That represents 18.25% of all PWTDs (which is 24,442), and 0.17% of the total federal work force.
  • Under the heading of advancement, which is a misnomer if ever there was one, we know that –
    • In FY05, the average pay grade level for PWTD was 8.43. This was almost two full grades below the government-wide average grade level of 9.98. In FY06, those numbers both moved up slightly, but the gap remained the same. The average grade for PWTD in FY06 was 8.5, while the average for all GS employees was 10.
    • In FY05, while only a third of all federal employees were employed at the 1-8 grade levels, more than half of federal employees with severe disabilities were employed 1-8 grade levels.
    • In the senior pay levels, we see similar and equally troubling statistics. In FY05, there were 19,268 employees at the senior executive level and only 88 were people with targeted disabilities, which is 0.46%. In FY06, we’re still only at 0.46%, or 93 out of 20,070. I think these statistics make clear that people with disabilities face significant barriers to employment. So what can be done about it? Quite a bit, actually.

Embrace Diversity

Let’s start with diversity – what it really means, and why you should care. Diversity is more than just a politically correct word that people toss around. It’s about inclusiveness. It’s also about examining the barriers that keep some people out and allow others in – and diversity affects your bottom line.

Back in February of this year, the EEOC held a Commission meeting wherein diversity was central to the discussion. During this meeting, a new initiative called E-RACE: Eradicating Racism and Colorism in Employment, was launched. My office and the office of the Chair worked very hard to bring this about. The point E-RACE is to bring a fresh, 21st century approach to combating racism. Why? Because sadly racism remains as prevalent a problem today as it was when the Civil Rights Act was passed more than 40 years ago. Race discrimination claims remains the most frequent claim filed with our agency.

During the E-RACE meeting, a great deal was said about the value of diversity. We had academics as well as diversity practitioners explain why diversity is worth striving for not because it is politically correct or morally correct, but because diversity increases the success of an organization. We learned – well, I already knew, but always enjoy hearing again – that diversity is directly related to an improvement in the bottom line. Obviously, the bottom line, and improvement to it, is what all businesses are striving for, whether you’re a large corporation, a small business, or USDA.

Any organizations -- including Federal agencies -- that want to be successful in today's world must recognize and use diversity to their advantage. This means that diversity management programs must not stand alone. Instead, they must be recognized as a critical link to achieving the agency's specific mission or business needs, relative to employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. This is the business case for valuing diversity.

The business case for diversity has two significant elements. First, the labor market has become increasingly competitive. We know that 60% of the government’s employees, including 90% of its 6,000 senior executives will be eligible to retire in the next decade. Not all those eligible to retire will do so as soon as they are able, but the peak of retirements will hit later this decade. The Federal Government must use every available source of candidates to ensure that each agency has the high-quality workforce that it needs to deliver its mission to the American public. Any agency that fails to take steps to recruit among the full spectrum of the labor market – which includes roughly 15 million Americans with severe disabilities – is missing a strategic opportunity. Managers need to take this challenge seriously.

Second, the changing demographics of America mean that the public served by the Federal Government is also changing. When agencies recruit and retain an inclusive workforce – one that looks like the America it serves – and when individual differences are respected, appreciated, and valued, diversity becomes an organizational strength that contributes to achieving results. Diversity offers a variety of views, approaches, and actions for an agency to use in strategic planning, problem solving, and decision making.

This conclusion has been supported by specific research showing that an effective diversity strategy has a positive effect on cost reduction, resource acquisition, creativity, problem solving, and organizational flexibility. Each of these actions has a direct impact on achieving the mission and business of the agency.

Now, hearing that diversity makes good business sense, as I said, was no revelation to me. I’ve known this to be true for years and seen first hand the benefits reaped by having a diverse workforce. Nonetheless, the EEOC may still be in the minority in this way of thinking. There are still those who hear the word diversity and believe it’s simply code for preferential treatment being afforded to minorities. Few would ever admit such a belief, of course, but I suspect that’s what underlies most opposition to the concept of diversity.

That’s not what diversity is about, and anyone with sense knows that. But this bias takes its toll. It affects Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, immigrants, anyone who speaks with an accent, women and, notably, people with disabilities.

Disability as a Component of Diversity

Every year, as some of you may know, the magazine Diversity Inc. publishes a list of the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity.” In addition to this overall list, they also include what they call “specialty lists.” This includes lists of the top companies for women, top companies for Asians, top company for Hispanics, etc. Among the many specialty lists is the “Top 10 Companies for People with Disabilities.” This list, however, is different than all the others in one significant way. Any idea what was missing? Actual statistics!

For every other specialty list, Diversity Inc. includes statistics to back up the ranking of the organization within the list. For example, Diversity Inc. reported that, for the top company for employment of African-Americans, that group represented 17% of the overall workforce and 24% of all new hires. That’s pretty compelling, right?

So, how does the top company for people with disabilities measure up? How many people with disabilities are employed by that top company? How many are executives? What percentage of new hires are people with disabilities?? A call to Diversity Inc revealed that they didn’t know the answers to these questions. Instead, for this list only, they looked at 1) whether the company had a web site that specifically reaches out to customers with disabilities; 2) whether the company had a Disability Awareness Professional Network; and 3) whether the company had a supplier-diversity effort aimed at people with disabilities.

Now that’s all well and good but it doesn’t tell us how many people with disabilities are actually working for those companies! I’m concerned that an organization could be crowned a TOP company for People with Disabilities without actually employing any!

USDA and Diversity

So let me ask the same questions of you. What is the diversity of this organization? Are you providing equal opportunities to all groups? When you think diversity, is it more than just a policy? More than just lip service? What about for people with disabilities?

Like most federal agencies, you have some work to do. In FY06, people with severe disabilities represented only 0.96% of your total work force. That amounts to 1,009 people in an organization that employs more than 105,000. That also represents a decline over the last five years. In FY02, USDA had a participation rate of 1.09%, which means we need to get things back to moving in the right direction.

Not only can this organization do better, but the federal government overall can and must do better. As I mentioned earlier, the participation rate for PWTD has been declining since 1993, and is back to where we were over 20 years ago. So what gives? Why is the government overall declining in this area, and what is happening in this organization, in particular? There are plenty of people with severe disabilities who are qualified and capable to do many, if not most, of the jobs at USDA. HR professionals and hiring managers must regularly reach out and recruit them.

In our country today there are an estimated 15 million people of working-age with a severe disability. That is roughly 5% of our overall population. It stands to reason, therefore, that people with severe disabilities should be employed at about a 5% rate. Unfortunately, the employment rate for people with severe disabilities is not even close to that figure. In the federal government alone only two agencies that have more than 500 employees even reached the 2% mark in FY 2006. That’s down from four in FY 2005.

The truth is Americans with disabilities have faced an unbelievably high unemployment rate for decades. The estimated unemployment rate for individuals with severe disabilities is about 70%. Seventy percent! Think about that in comparison to the national unemployment rate of less than 5%. Considering the consistent need for available talent, I’m shocked that employers would continue to overlook this potential talent pool, but I know that they do. Furthermore, considering that 60% of all federal employees are eligible to retire in the next ten years, as I mentioned earlier, managers and supervisors are surely shooting themselves in the proverbial foot by not considering every group of potential employees. All Americans who want to work and are qualified to do so should have the freedom of opportunity and the equal opportunity to do so. That is what the LEAD Initiative is all about.

LEADing the Way

The EEOC, Commissioner Griffin, and I are committed to reversing the declining trend of employment opportunities available to people with severe disabilities. We are committed to the federal government becoming a model employer, as Congress has mandated – and we are committed to making that happen one agency at a time. We want and expect to see agencies start to hire and promote people with disabilities. We also want and expect to see a concerted effort by agencies to retain the employees with disabilities already on board.

Both Linda Springer, OPM’s Director, and the EEOC have set a goal that all federal agencies reach 2% by 2010 – and for those of you that don’t know, 2010 represents the 20th Anniversary of the ADA.

For USDA to reach this goal, you will need to hire 1100 people with severe disabilities over the next three years. That 1100 is in addition to the 1000 you currently employ – so you have to maintain the current group and then add to it. I urge individual managers to contribute to this goal within their individual teams and groups.

For you hiring officials out there wondering how you can contribute or help, I suggest you learn how to make good use of the Schedule A hiring authority. Schedule A is the government’s best kept secret! It is a special hiring authority that allows you to bypass the traditional competitive hiring process and non-competitively hire individuals with disabilities into almost any job that the individual is qualified for. No announcements. No cert lists. No waits of weeks or months to get a position filled! Schedule A is a wonderful hiring tool, and if you are not familiar with it, we brought some literature that may help. Commissioner Griffin’s office, as part of the LEAD Initiative, has put together three brochures called “The ABCs of Schedule A.” There is one for HR professionals, one for hiring managers, and one for Disability Program Mangers and Selective Placement Coordinators. If you would like one, please see Terry Thir at the end of today’s program.

So, no more excuses! Eleven hundred new hires in three years is imminently do-able! Set a quarterly goal, make a plan, and then execute, just as the Secretary said! That is what separates the agencies who are excelling in this area and those that are not. And just to stoke the fires of competition, I want you to know that currently USDA is ranked 6th out of the 15 cabinet level agencies. Now 6th is not too bad – it puts you in the top half of the group. But I think you can do better.

Importantly, once you’ve hired more people with severe disabilities, it’s vital to remember that hiring is not the end point. Equal opportunity must be extended to all aspects of employment. This means assuring that people with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as other employees: to advance, to become managers, to take on special projects, to receive awards, etc. It also means making sure that individuals with disabilities who need an accommodation are provided one. Where you have managers out there with attitudinal biases that are getting in the way, I say move those managers out of the way! If there are policies in place prohibiting a whole class of qualified individuals from being considered for a position, change or eliminate that policy! That goes for policies negatively impacting women, or Asians, or any other group! We must ensure that equal opportunity is extended to all, and is extended to every aspect of the employment relationship.

To you senior managers and executives out there, you should know how USDA is performing in all the areas I just mentioned. And if you don’t know, you need to ask. Ask questions like why almost 75% (74.31%) of the employees at the Senior Pay Level for USDA are male, when men represent only 57% of the overall USDA workforce. Or, why do Hispanics have a participation rate of only 6%, despite their growing numbers in the overall population of our country. Managers need to make these inquiries, and participate in these discussions. Question what exclusionary barriers are at work in your workplace – and then make plans to remove them and improve the USDA workplace.

Now, I tell you this because it makes good business sense, and because I believe it. But you should all also know that all the things I’m suggesting are already required of you by the EEOC. We require all federal agencies to critically examine all workplace policies and procedures, to identify and then remove unlawful barriers. The reason for this requirement, again, is to move the federal government closer to being the model employer Congress has demanded that we be.

Closing Remarks

In closing, I want to thank you, on behalf of Commissioner Griffin and myself, for having me today. I know I offered a sobering reality, but I hope what I have said today serves as a motivator for you. And I hope Commissioner Griffin has the opportunity to address this group again in a couple of years to commend you on the strides you’ve made.

I want to leave you with a challenge. I challenge USDA to be a positive example of how to recruit, hire, and retain a diverse workforce comprised of the best and the brightest workers this nation has to offer. I challenge USDA to promote and advance all groups equally within its workforce. I challenge you to help the federal government become a model employer. Most importantly, I challenge USDA to knock Treasury or the VA out of that top slot!

Thank you.