USDA fighting discrimination legacy with more training, accountability

Tuesday - 10/16/2012, 8:00am EDT

Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary - Part 1

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The Agriculture Department is addressing a legacy of discrimination claims by offering better workforce training, more accountability and a deeper look at its data.

"We can pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in claims ... or we can make sure those resources are available to the programs that help people," said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

Training

The agency is training employees to be "sensitive to people of all races, in all regions of the country," Vilsack said. That includes political appointees, who must attend civil rights training.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

"The training is done by experts who come in and make us a lot more sensitive to comments and to actions that, in the past, maybe people would've thought were appropriate or funny but really are not appropriate and not funny, and taken in a way they should be," Vilsack said.

Those discrimination claims are also coming from within the workforce. Vilsack said the agency is opening up its hiring to more diversity, including at the Senior Executive Service level.

The workforce training is part of a larger effort — what Vilsack calls a "cultural transformation." He noted that the change comes at a time of much budget uncertainty, particularly without the passage of a farm bill.

Accountability

To address claims of discrimination within the USDA workforce, Vilsack said his office regularly reviews complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for each department and for each state.

"If we see a spike in claims or incidences, we basically send folks out to do an investigation in why we've seen that spike," he said.

And to keep track of who is receiving loans, front-line workers see metrics that hold them accountable for not meeting expectations, but also for meeting goals.

"You hold people accountable when the job's not done well, but you also congratulate them when they are doing a good job," Vilsack said.

Community outreach

USDA has focused on areas with the highest numbers of discrimination complaints to compare the demographics of the community and the USDA loan recipients.

"If, say, 10 percent is socially disadvantaged but only 0.5 percent [of loans] are going to socially disadvantaged farmers, then we know we've got a problem," Vilsack said. "We've got to go back into that county. We have to work with local folks to see why that is so. Is it that people don't know about the problem? Is it that the process is complicated and they're not getting assistance and help?"

An initiative called Strike Force partners with communities in poor areas to provide training and mentoring on how to participate in USDA programs.

"We're basically having communities identify projects that they think are important to them and work with them so they have success, see what success looks like and that will make it a little easier to replicate success," Vilsack said.

In the past three years, 60 percent of its loans have gone to beginning farmers or socially disadvantaged farmers, he said.

Congressional action needed

The Government Accountability Office found USDA had made significant progress in implementing a plan to resolve discrimination complaints. However, the agency is still struggling to settle past cases, particularly those that may have not have received "due respect" in the previous administration, Vilsack said.

A settlement last year will make $1.2 billion in claims available to as many as 65,000 black farmers. The payout could be as much as $250,000 for some, but one criticism of the settlement is it does not cover a long enough time.

Since 2009, USDA has reviewed "several thousand cases" that were closed. But the statute of limitation in some of those cases has expired. The agency is now waiting on Congress to both authorize more funds — about $40 million — to resolve about 650 cases, as well as Congress to waive the statute of limitations on old cases, Vilsack said.

"So far, this Congress has been unwilling to do that. ... We keep asking and we'll continue to ask, but we do need congressional authority," he said.

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