Black men set protest of SSA

African-American male workers claim bias by agency

April 17, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- More than 100 black male employees from the Social Security Administration's headquarters in Baltimore plan to come to Washington on Monday to protest what they say is the discrimination in promotions and pay they have suffered because of their race and sex.

The men, joined by representatives of the NAACP, say they will demonstrate in front of the offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to call for more aggressive monitoring of the bias against African-American men that they say exists throughout the Social Security agency.

"I'd like to see, really, a check-and-balance system here in this agency to make sure that black men will receive adequate treatment, a fair treatment, in promotion, hiring, reviewing and awards," said Gilbert A. Jefferson, a 67-year-old management analyst for the SSA who lives in Columbia.

Paul Barnes, a senior Social Security executive, emphatically denied the allegations yesterday and offered statistics that he said disproved any notion that the agency discriminates against black men in its work force.

But, after a tortuous administrative process that lasted more than three years, the EEOC has ruled that black men who work at Social Security headquarters are free to jointly pursue allegations of bias against the agency in a single lawsuit. In doing so, the EEOC said the allegations made by the three lead plaintiffs -- Jefferson, Harry M. Dunbar and Kenneth A. Burden -- are a fair representation of allegations made by other employees.

Social Security officials have exhausted their appeals in seeking to bar the designation of the black male employees as a class for the purposes of a bias lawsuit, which will be heard by an EEOC judge in Baltimore. A date has not been set.

"The Social Security Administration has been trying to throw up every conceivable roadblock that it could," said Michael Kator, a Washington lawyer who has represented the plaintiffs since 1995.

Defending the agency

Barnes, Social Security's deputy commissioner for human resources, pointed to his own 31-year career as a black male employee of the agency to highlight what he said was the SSA's firm policy against discrimination.

"You'd have a hard time finding an organization that has a record on diversity better than the agency has," Barnes said. "[SSA] has one of the most diverse work forces in government."

To bolster his claim, Barnes offered the following numbers: 6.7 percent of the agency headquarters' work force is made up of black men, compared with roughly 5.2 percent of the nation's entire work force. But black men, he said, constitute 10 percent of the headquarters' most senior executives, and 5.6 percent of the next-highest level.

The EEOC ruling, issued in January, applies only to black male employees at the headquarters who have not received a promotion since 1995 or who believe that they have been subject to bias during their careers there.

The three plaintiffs say they have been joined by 110 colleagues in their class action suit, and more might follow.

Evaluation reports

There are 470 black men in the 6,957-person work force at the agency's Baltimore headquarters, officials say, and more than 100 former employees are likely to be eligible for the lawsuit as well.

To make his case, Kator referred to competing figures from 1993-1994, which he said were the most recent ones released by the agency. Black male workers at the Baltimore headquarters were disproportionately more likely that year to receive a "minimally satisfactory" report than was a white man or a woman of either race.

Black men, Kator said, received more than half of all disciplinary actions that year -- more than five times their percentage in the work force. He also asserted that women of both races were markedly more likely to receive promotions than were black men.

Stewart Schwab, a Cornell University law professor who specializes in labor law, said it is becoming increasingly difficult for employees to get their discrimination claims considered as class actions. The Social Security suit, he said, could set an important precedent. "This is a case that will undoubtedly be one of the bigger discrimination cases this year, no matter how it comes out," Schwab said.

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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