PEF workshop spotlights merit, fitness, diversity and inclusion in state service
By SHERRY HALBROOK
If you don’t have the facts and are not paying close attention, it’s easy to assume that everything is going as it should. But when it comes to the issues of merit and fitness in state service and the need for all segments of New York’s diverse population to be included and given a fair chance to participate in the state workforce, PEF is not ready to assume anything.
The union presented a public workshop to focus on state civil service, diversity and inclusion February 17 at the annual conference of the NYS Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators Inc. held at the Empire State Plaza in Albany.
Diversity was defined broadly to include women and gender-orientation based minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, military veterans, and persons with disabilities.
The workshop, which drew a standing-room-only crowd, was moderated by PEF Vice President Adreina Adams.
Panelists included state Acting Commissioner of Civil Service Lola Brabham, state Chief Diversity Officer Lourdes Zapata, and former New York City Councilman Robert Jackson, who also is a former member of PEF and the union’s former director of field services downstate. PEF President Wayne Spence served on the panel in place of Dr. Regena Lynn Thomas who was ill and unable to participate.
In her introductory remarks, Adams noted men and women of color make up about 30,000 of the state’s 121,000 competitive class employees. She said PEF has shown its commitment to equity and fairness since the early 1980s when it was just getting fully organized and focused, and it has had an Affirmative Action Advisory Committee since 2006.
“PEF’s actions have affirmed its mandated policy of affirmative action to promote, protect and enhance the rights of a culturally and racially diverse workforce and to affirmatively act to prevent and combat all instances of discrimination,” Adams said.
She cited state laws and directives that “were intended to have an impact on the alarming racial disparities in the state workforce” as particularly significant.
These include Gov. Mario Cuomo’s Executive Order Number 6, issued in 1983, that was “a landmark beginning of the first examination of diversity in state agencies. The Department of Civil Service was given the responsibility of examining equal opportunity for people of color, women, disabled persons and Vietnam era veterans in state government, and for establishing the governor’s Executive Committee for Affirmative Action.”
In spite of that promising start, Adams said that by 2015 “people of color represented 25.7 percent of the state government workforce, up by only 1 percent from 10 years earlier.”
Another important state action cited by Adams was the creation of an Advisory Council on Diversity in 2016 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo who tasked it with studying and advising the state on how to accelerate its hiring of strong candidates of color. In March 2017, he announced the council’s recommendations were incorporated into the state’s Five Year Strategic Plan for Diversity and Inclusion.
“Today, we will discuss these recommendations and other strategies on how we can make a path forward together for improving diversity in the state workforce,” Adams said.
Brabham noted, “New York state is the most diverse place on the globe,” and said the state Civil Service Commission and the Department of Civil Service are working diligently to build on the recommendations and guidance of the Advisory Council on Diversity.
Asked for specific examples of how the council’s recommendations have affected the way DCS operates, Brabham cited exam announcements and fee waivers, which she said were a strong concern of the council.
“We revised the exam announcements,” she said, to make it more clear how disabled or other diverse candidates might be accommodated in the exam process. She added the department also has created a two-part video series to walk people through the exam and hiring process.
DCS, she said, is seeking better ways to let potential candidates from diverse groups know about state job postings and to ensure diversity among panel members who interview candidates for a job.
Brabham said DCS wants to work with the state Labor Department’s 92 career centers throughout New York to ensure job seekers are informed about state job and exam opportunities and how to apply. In addition, she said two bills have been introduced in the state Legislature to improve the process. One of these proposes to extend the time frame for temporary project jobs from 18 months to two years.
DCS is also working to certify both the departmental and interdepartmental eligibility lists for a job title at the same time. And Brabham said DCS is following up when agencies give reasons why they need to hire outside the competitive class for a particular job.
The audience responded strongly when Brabham said she questioned, “How do we know that’s how the position is really being used? Let’s hold the agency accountable.” That also includes transparency in how the positions were marketed and which organizations were targeted for recruitment to ensure diversity and inclusion.
Jackson briefly recounted the state’s historic efforts to move from a corrupt patronage system to one founded firmly on hiring the best qualified candidates based on exams to determine merit and fitness.
“People want to know they are being treated fairly,” Jackson said.
He pointed out the state has hired far more women of color than men of color, with the women holding approximately 18,600 positions in the competitive class, compared to just 11,456 men.
Jackson also expressed concern about “the increased practice of changing competitive titles to non-competitive or exempt” — a trend Brabham questioned.
“State workforce statistics reflect a changing composition of the state’s public-sector workforce that can be characterized by a gradual, and at times aggressive, depletion and loss of skilled and experienced state workers in competitive titles,” Jackson said, and added those workers often are replaced by more costly consultants.
“Today we are at a unique precipice,” Jackson said, “where we must ask … do the current practices of NYS’s civil service system reflect the original intent of the law that created it and the missions of the current and prior executive administrations.
“We want to make sure merit and fitness are the key to opportunity,” Jackson said. “I see (the state hiring and promotion process) is going off course. It is moving from competitive to non-competitive.” It is critically important, he said, to rely on merit and fitness and “education is they key to uplift all people.”
Zapata said the workshop was occurring on her first day on the job as state chief diversity officer and she looks forward to focusing on these issues. She previously was executive vice president and executive director of the Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development at Empire State Development.
Zapata cited a series of gubernatorial executive orders aimed at increasing fairness, diversity and inclusion in state hiring practices and in its award of contracts to minority and women owned enterprises.
The state, she said, is taking a tougher stand on these issues. For instance, agencies may no longer ask job candidates about their prior salary history.
“It should only matter how well you will do the job,” Zapata said.
She cited another executive order that aims to hold state contractors to a higher standard, requiring them to report on diversity in their workforce, what job titles diverse employees hold and how much they are paid.
Zapata also said legislation has been written to set diversity thresholds and accountability standards for state agencies’ hiring practices.
Spence said PEF is hearing complaints from its members who are concerned about their jobs being reclassified from competitive to exempt, or their work being contracted out to the private sector.
“If you are scoring better (than other job candidates) on an exam, you should be hired,” Spence said.
Noting that staff at the DCS has dropped from a high of 800 employees to just 300, Spence asked if that was driving some of the apparent shortcuts being taken.
“We’re concerned that DCS is so understaffed it is saying, ‘We’ll skip the exam and just go by (candidates’) resumes. And our members are saying PEF is not doing enough to stop that,” Spence said.
Brabham said she is not aware of such shifts and stating, “Eighty percent (of state job titles) are competitive.”
She also said, “We’re slowly adding staff, 20 to 30 last year. But it probably will not ever be a 700-person agency again.”
DCS is looking to improve its services and operations within the existing budget constraints, she said. For instance it is starting to hold exams on SUNY and CUNY campuses and scheduling them for the weekend when more people could be free to take them.
During questions and comments from the audience, a PEF member said DCS has merged job titles that previously denoted very specific areas of expertise. Now, agencies must hire from a general list without knowing which candidates have the needed special knowledge or experience. As a result, agencies may just decide to contract the work to shadow agencies or other private contractors.
Another PEF member said he sees minorities getting entry-level jobs but being “virtually locked out of mid-level supervisory positions. Up to salary grade 23 positions we see diversity, but in grades 23 to 31, much less diversity. A lot of people are being locked out.”
Zapata said, “You don’t have to be a commissioner to know the mid-level managerial roles are not diverse. How can we creatively fix this? I don’t know. This is just my first day on the job. But I think the commitment at the governor’s level is there.”
A third PEF member said she sees the number of blacks in state service expanding, but the number of Hispanics is not growing and has been stuck near the 4.1 percent level it held a decade ago.
Brabham said the percentage of state positions held by Hispanics has now reached 5.1 percent and DCS is trying to improve that. For example it is now working to produce Spanish language versions of its videos for prospective job seekers.
“We recently realized people are sometimes confused about whether they must be U.S. citizens to apply for state positions. They don’t need to be citizens and we are trying to go out and present that information.”
Jackson asked Zapata if she would have enough staff to ensure state agencies comply with diversity and inclusion policies and requirements. She replied that she will have about 40 staff, but only five, including herself, to monitor 96 state agencies and commissions for compliance.
“We don’t have to replicate the (policies and requirements for diversity and inclusion) that are already there,” Zapata said. “It’s a message that has to go straight to the leaders and the people doing the hiring.”
As the workshop concluded, Spence spoke about meetings he and PEF LGBTQ Committee Chair Sheila Ambrose have had with the governor’s office about LGBTQ issues and he asked Brabham and Zapata if they would participate in such meetings.
When Zapata responded, “You have to invite me,” Spence said, “We’d like to have you both at the next meeting. You will be invited, for sure.”