NAACP, workers charge bias at Social Security

January 13, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

NAACP officials alleged yesterday that black workers suffer discrimination in hiring and promotion at the Social Security Administration and Health Care Financing Administration.

"We are alarmed that over 500 African-Americans have signed petitions alleging discrimination here at the Social Security Administration," said W. Gregory Wims, who heads an NAACP task force investigating complaints of discrimination at federal agencies.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People charged that blacks are underrepresented in upper-level jobs, overlooked for promotion, stymied by a backlog of bias complaints at the agencies and subject to reprisals if they complain.

A spirited crowd of more than 100 black employees carried signs and cheered the charges made at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn. A brief noontime rally organized by the NAACP was held there in the rain.

More than 6,000 blacks work for Social Security in the Baltimore area.

Social Security officials countered that no systematic discrimination exists in the 65,000-employee agency, and workers are not punished if they complain of bias.

The officials conceded that blacks continue to be underrepresented in upper management, but said the agency is correcting that imbalance.

Over the last five years, blacks -- who make up 27 percent of the Social Security work force nationwide -- have been promoted more often than other employees, said Ruth Pierce, deputy commissioner for human resources.

Social Security has made "major strides" since the mid-1980s in improving the status of blacks at the agency, she said. She noted that four of the agency's six deputy commissioners, including herself, are black.

"I'm certainly not saying we're where we'd like to be . . . but we clearly don't believe we have institutionalized racism," Ms. Pierce said.

Miguel Torrado, director of the agency's civil rights office, said the backlog of pending job bias complaints had been cut from about 200 three years ago to 54 yesterday.

Officials at the Health Care Financing Administration, which shares the Woodlawn campus with Social Security, could not immediately provide a racial breakdown of their work force. Both agencies said their administrators have offered to meet with the NAACP.

Donna Shalala, who oversees the agencies as U.S. secretary of health and human services, said in a statement that she has "zero tolerance for any form of discrimination" and that she "will root it out if I find it and change it."

NAACP officials and employees contended that black men in particular have not prospered at Social Security and HCFA.

Gilbert M. Jefferson, a 33-year veteran of Social Security, said he had been passed over for promotion 18 times, adding that supervisors tried to keep black men down.

Mr. Torrado said that men in general make up only 28 percent of Social Security's work force nationwide, and black men are 3.9 percent. Black women account for 23.3 percent of Social Security employees.

Blacks make up nearly 44 percent of the 13,800 workers at Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn and the Metro West complex in Baltimore. Black women outnumber black men among employees by more than 5 to 1.

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