By Darryl Fears | Washington Post
Cyrus Salazar is one of the select few.
Young, Hispanic and motivated to work as a public servant in Washington, he landed a job at the Department of Health and Human Services after leaving New Mexico State University in 1999. But seven years later, the Mexican American has joined a growing list of people who wonder why Hispanics are still the only underrepresented minority group in the federal workplace.
“That has always been a concern of mine,” said Salazar, 30. “There is such a low representation of Hispanics. There’s not one clear-cut answer. It’s a challenge every day.”
Hispanics represent 7 percent of employees in federal government when the group’s population is growing faster than all others. The five-percentage-point gap between Hispanics working in the public and private domains translates to thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in potential pay, according to a coalition of Hispanic federal employees.
The private sector tracks with the 13 percent of Hispanics in the general population, 40 million people, not including an estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the country illegally.
Hispanic underemployment has continued for decades despite presidential directives, job programs and recruitment drives, according to numerous federal reports. In a 1996 evaluation of Hispanic employment in the government, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board said that discrimination “undeniably played a role in the history of Hispanic employment issues” and that “there is no evidence to suggest that it has somehow been totally eliminated from the federal workplace.”
Gilbert Sandate, chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government, said federal managers, most non-Hispanic and white, lack the will to aggressively recruit Hispanics at universities and private workplaces in the Southwest and West Coast, where they are concentrated.
“Since 2000, Hispanics have accounted for half of the population growth in the United States,” Sandate said. “You would think that with all this increase, Hispanics would get a fair shake in the federal government.”
As a recruiter, Salazar wonders what happens when Hispanic job applicants are handed off to managers at federal agencies. “If you have three people who are equally qualified—a Hispanic, an African American and a white person—who are you going to hire?” he said. “It all comes down to preference.”
Preference is just one factor, said John Crum, director of policy and evaluation for the Merit Systems Protection Board. “The government can only hire citizens, and many Hispanics in this country are not citizens.”
On top of that, recruiting Hispanics is not easy, especially when many federal jobs are clustered in big cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest. “A lower percentage of our jobs happen to be in the Southwest,” Crum said.
Federal recruiters restrained by budgets are less likely to build an applicant pool in the Southwest. “It’s difficult to say if someone in Detroit should be recruiting someone in Arizona,” Crum said, but “the issue is of concern to us.” Hispanic hires have grown by a single percentage point since his agency’s report 10 years ago.
Another obstacle, he said, is that “the government primarily employs professional- or administrative-type people, while a large percentage of Hispanic people work in other types of jobs.”
The consequences are felt nationwide, Hispanic advocates say. The government suffers from a shortage of Spanish-speaking workers who could help non-English speakers navigate Social Security and other federal documents. In the chaotic aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the government discovered that it could not effectively communicate with displaced immigrants, legal and undocumented.
Money matters, too, Sandate said. The gap between federal and private-sector representation translates to 90,000 jobs and about $4 billion in federal salaries, according to an estimate compiled by Sandate’s coalition.
That is all the more reason Hispanics should have a share of the federal pie, said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. “The federal government needs to represent our entire country, and to do that it needs to be representative of our entire country.”
By most standards, the federal government overachieves when it comes to diversity. It has long been hailed as a model of workplace inclusion, particularly for black workers who are overrepresented relative to the private sector. The 7 percent employment rate of Hispanics is incongruous, considering that they make up 12 percent of the private workforce.
“Our position has always been ‘You tell me what the job is and we can find qualified people to fill those positions,’ ” Sandate said.
Hispanic representation at the Office of Personnel Management, the Department of Commerce and HHS is especially meager—each has less than 4 percent, according to an OPM report to President Bush, released in June.
The departments of Defense, Energy, Interior and State are not much better, with less than 6 percent each. Homeland Security, needing Spanish speakers at the border, has the largest proportion of Hispanic workers, 18 percent. The Social Security Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have 12 and 13 percent representation, respectively.
The overall number of Hispanics in the federal government increased in 2004, but not by much. It went from 7 percent in 2003 to 7.3 percent, according to the report. There was also a slight increase in the number of Hispanics hired to senior positions.
“We’re trying to correct 40 years of history, programs that haven’t worked,” Salazar said. “You can have the best recruiters, the best personnel. . . . There’s a lot of follow-up, a lot of meetings with graduate students. You want the best and brightest.”