december coverDoes Uncle Sam Want You?

Latinos have reached the highest levels of government in the Obama Administration. There are Latinos in the Cabinet, and on the Supreme Court. But one thing has not changed. Among the more than 2 million civil servants who work in dozens of Federal agencies, Latinos are still scarce.

“This is not a good representation of what this administration is about,” admits Christine Griffin, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Obama inherited a civil service system that for decades failed to recruit and retain Hispanics. Administration officials say they intend to do better. But Latinos who have struggled for years to serve in the Federal government are frustrated. So are the Latinos who do work for Tio Sam.

“If someone wanted to fix this problem, it would be fixed,” says Armando Rodriguez, a longtime advocate for Hispanic Federal workers. “The reason these disparities continue to exist after 40 years is that there hasn’t been a priority to address them.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

The latest count of Hispanic Federal employees is detailed in a report the Office of Personnel Management gave the president in April. It said Latino employment in the Federal government is at about 8 percent, while Hispanics make up 13.2 percent of the nationwide civilian labor force. And it said the gap widened between 2008 and 2009. “While some progress has been made, the Federal government is not fully tapping the talent in the Hispanic community for public service,” the OPM report concluded.

To be frozen out of Federal jobs, especially at a time when Latinos are overrepresented in the ranks of the recession’s unemployed, has a big impact.

Comparing a long list of occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics determined Federal workers earned an average salary of $67,691 in 2008, while the average wage of private sector employees was $60,041. Government workers also have significantly better benefits, including a choice of comprehensive health care plans, generous retirement benefits, paid leave and other perks. Yet Latinos remain the only minority underrepresented in the Federal workplace. Blacks, Asians and Native Americans are all overrepresented.

Perhaps more disturbing to advocates like Rodriguez, the agencies that are in charge of matters of most importance to Hispanics---health care, small business issues and education---have the fewest number of Latino employees. According OPM, on June 30, 2009 only 3.4 percent of the Department of HHS’s workforce was Hispanic. The Commerce Department had only 3.9 percent Latino employees and the Department of Education 4.5 percent.

“We don’t have people at the table who can speak to the concerns of our community,” says Rodriguez, who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some Federal agencies have a better track record of hiring Hispanics---as of last count, 19.5 percent of the Department of Homeland Security’s workers were Latino. But those workers were concentrated in the department’s law enforcement agencies, like the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service.

Left at the Curb

Rodriguez is the chairman of the National Council of Hispanic Program Managers, an advocacy group for Latino federal workers that has members from 40 agencies. Born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez began his career with the Federal government in 1973, when he was recruited to work as an intern in the then-new Office of Spanish Speaking Affairs. That office was created by former President Richard Nixon as part of an effort to increase Hispanic employment in the federal workforce. In 1970, Nixon issued a 16-point Federal Employment Plan that outlined steps that the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and other agencies could undertake to ensure equal opportunity.

Nixon’s effort lost steam in succeeding administrations, but now Obama is grappling with the issue. Griffin says her agency---whose workforce is only 4.6 percent Latino---is creating a new diversity office aimed at hiring more Hispanics in the Federal government. Griffin also says OPM and other Federal agencies are recruiting at Hispanic-serving colleges and participating in job fairs expected to attract a diverse audience, including Hispanics.

“We’re looking at various parts of the country and asking ‘where are the Hispanic applicants?’” Griffin says.

Yet she said Latinos may distrust the Federal government as an employer because of its poor hiring record: “If an employer hasn’t been friendly to a certain group of people, they’re not going to apply anymore.” Segundo Pereira, deputy assistant secretary in HHS’s office of diversity, says his agency is seeking to enter into agreements with Hispanic organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) as a way to broaden recruitment. But most of those tactics aren’t new. They were used by previous administrations, with mixed results.

LULAC National Executive Director Brent Wilkes says a few agencies know how to hire Hispanics, but most don’t. According to him, a slow, arduous, hiring process and a sometimes hostile workplace is largely to blame.

Most Federal applicants apply on-line at Applications then go through a complicated screening and grading system that assess points for experience, education, the ability to successfully complete a number of essays, military service and other factors. Wilkes says it helps for an applicant to have a family member or friend employed by theFederal government help navigate the bureaucratic maze that leads to a government job.

“Because it’s a ‘friends and family plan,’ and most Hispanics don’t have friends and family in the federal government, they fail at the process,” Wilkes says. “There’s no one to teach them the tricks of the trade.”

Wilkes applauded Obama’s effort to streamline, accelerate and bring more transparency to the Federal hiring process. But he says discrimination is still a problem at many of the agencies. “The Federal workforce has a history of not making Latinos feel welcome,” Wilkes says.

Why do efforts to recruit Hispanics fail?

“That’s a good question and one that we’ve been asking ourselves,” Pereira said. “Are they applying and if they are, are they getting to the (finalists) list? We don’t know.”

For HHS’s workforce to have the same percentage of Latino workers as the private sector, that agency would have to immediately hire about 5,000 Hispanics, a prospect Pereira says is unlikely. Yet Pereira insists the Obama Administration is committed to change and is considering ways to track Hispanic applicants, perhaps by consolidating the databases of every agency’s human resources department.

“We don’t have a problem attracting other minorities as we have Hispanics,” Pereira said. “And we’ve been losing them as fast as we can hire them.”

Advocates say the poor retention rate is the result of lack of promotions for Latino civil servants. If there are few Hispanics working at the agencies in the low and middle grade levels, there are even fewer at top. Hispanics accounted for only 3.7 percent of the Federal workers at Senior Executive Service level last year. And Latinas are almost non-existent in the SES. Those top executives, who are ranked above the federal government’s graded General Service, or GS scale, earn from about $120,000 to nearly $180,000 a year.

Rodriguez says culture may be to blame for the dearth of Hispanic Federal executives. Latinos shun self-promotion and non-Latino managers are accustomed to taking their Hispanic workers for granted, he says. “We’re the ones who never make a lot of noise,” Rodriguez said. “We think ‘if we work hard, our rewards will come.’ But a lot of time we’re left at the curb.” He also says the practice of promoting from within keeps Latinos from the best jobs in the civil service. ‘If you have never worked in the Navy, you won’t be best qualified to get that good job in the Navy.”

And Rodriguez says there’s no incentive for changing the system. “No one is ever held accountable for not doing the right thing,” he says. “There are no consequences for not hiring or promoting Latinos.”

That may not change anytime soon. But Griffin says the Obama Administration will not make excuses for Latino underrepresentation. “We’re not going to say ‘Gee, we can’t find them.’”

Shaking Things Up

There are Federal agencies that do have a good record of hiring and keeping Latino employees. For example, the Social Security Administration, whose workforce is 13.7 percent Latino, has a good recruiting and career development plan, advocates say. But Wilkes said the civil service’s unique hiring process and its exclusionary culture impedes most attempts at reform. He points to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a Latina. Yet the Labor Department’s workforce last year was about 7 percent Hispanic.

“It’s very difficult for a political appointee to change the system,” Wilkes said.

Solis disputes this. A statement from the Labor Department said the OPM report that counted Hispanics was dated and things have changed. “The report contains data covering July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009 and does not report on any 2010 hires,” the statement said. In the 18-month period that ended in September, “the percentage of Latino permanent hires in the Department of Labor was nearly 11 percent.”

Advocates for more Hispanic hires in the Federal government were blindsided by a Government Accountability Office report that said it’s impossible to have as many Latinos working for the Federal government as the private sector.

The GAO report said most Federal jobs require citizenship and higher educational levels than the civilian labor force. While private employers hire non-citizens and those with less education, the Federal government can’t. GAO official Christopher Mihm defended the report at an October 31, 2006 meeting with Federal Hispanic employment advocates and representatives from a number of Latino advocacy groups.

According to minutes of that meeting, the advocates tried to tear that report to shreds. They argued other minority groups also contain numbers of non-citizens, yet they don’t suffer from underrepresentation in the Federal government. “Why pick on Hispanics?” the advocates asked Mihm. They said certain agencies, including NASA, that require their workers to have the highest levels of education have less problem finding qualified Hispanics that other agencies.

Jimmie Reina, then head of the Hispanic National Bar Association, said his organization represented 30,000 legal professionals in the United States and Puerto Rico, but he could not find a single Hispanic lawyer working at the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration.

But the damage had been done, said Jorge Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives. He predicted Federal hiring managers would use the GAO report as a justification not to hire or promote Hispanics. Years later, there is still no pressure on federal hiring manager to change their practices, Ponce says.

“Things will change when there is a call to action from the highest levels of the government leadership---both in the political and career ranks---resources are allocated and there is a deep-seated realization of the urgency to confront this challenge,” he says.

Yet Ponce says the Obama Administration has decided to use the same failed tactics of its predecessors : “Multiple blue-ribbon commissions, tiger teams, you-name-it task forces, voluminous strategic plans and reports that sit idle and collect dust on bookshelves.” Ponce also blames Latinos for not doing enough to change things. They “vote with their feet” and leave federal jobs instead of filing discrimination complaints, he says.

A 2005 Gallup poll found that about 15 percent of all Federal employees reported discrimination, including 18 percent of Latino workers. But of the more than 16,000 discrimination complaints reported in the Federal government in 2007, only 4.2 percent were filed by Latinos.

Some say Hispanic organizations should form a task group to review meritorious complaints and decide on the ones that they would finance through litigation. That would eliminate a basic barrier to Latinos who want press a discrimination claim---the prohibitively high attorneys fees few Hispanics can afford. Wilkes says suing the Federal government might shake things up.

“One good consent decree would take care of a lot of things,” he said.

Rodriguez believes Congress, which funds all the Federal agencies, should get involved.“If Congress is the one who provides for them, they should also say ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ They should say to HHS and other agencies ‘Make sure we have the proper representation of this community,” Rodriguez says.

Meanwhile ,OPM’s Griffin vows there will be progress under the Obama Administration. Yet she says she “can’t predict huge increases” in the numbers of Hispanics hired. “But we want to do better,” Griffin says. “We want a workforce that reflects the society we serve.”

Ana Radelat is a writer based in the Washington, DC area.