Staff's bias complaints beset SSA

Backlog has tripled in the past five years

Agency notes its improvement

August 07, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Tucked away in a corner of the Social Security Administration's sprawling Woodlawn campus is a building employees have long called "The Plantation," a nickname reflecting decades of real and perceived discrimination.

Workers in the Security West building process paperwork for millions of retired and disabled Americans. The pay is low, the job is monotonous, and the work is performed mostly by women and minorities.

Some agency employees - particularly blacks - see Security West and its nickname as indicative of discrimination against support staff members throughout the Woodlawn complex passed over for promotions despite years of experience.

Discrimination complaints awaiting a ruling from the agency totaled 274 as of June 30, a backlog that has more than tripled over the past five years and drawn criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Workers say they are frustrated by what they see as management's failure to reward their efforts.

"We went out and got an education, but now it's evolving so that you need a master's degree to occupy the same job," said Debra Harley, who joined the agency in 1967 and is part of a class action suit against SSA by black women.

"That decision, however, makes it advantageous for them to bring in a certain type of person," she said.

Agency officials are sympathetic but argue that such perceptions are outdated. In recent years, they say, the agency has made great strides in the hiring and promotion of minorities. It has greater minority representation than other federal agencies in every category except Asians and Native Americans.

"When you look historically, you can find points of concern," said Reginald F. Wells, the SSA's deputy commissioner for human resources. "You're looking at a different picture than 15 to 20 years ago. That is history rather than the facts of today."

The debate is amplified in part by the size of the agency.

Social Security headquarters is like a miniature city, with 10 buildings and 4 million square feet of space. The Baltimore County campus has about 12,000 employees - the size of Philip Morris' entire U.S. work force - and is responsible for triggering, by computer, disability and retirement checks and for issuing Social Security cards.

Wells said he is not surprised by the formal grievances and lawsuits, despite what he sees as the agency's progress.

"We have a work force that is activist," he said. "People who gravitate to us are socially conscious and have a social worker-type mentality. They are concerned about the poor and disabled. They are inclined to speak up for themselves."

A push for racial equality at headquarters began in 1948, when discrimination complaints were lodged against what was then the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance.

That year, a federal commission ended segregated offices at the agency and ordered race-blind hiring and promotions.

But it wasn't until 1962, after a union investigation, that the agency eliminated a numbering system for applicants (Jews had been given the number "1" and blacks the number "2").

Tensions continued for decades. In May 1964, at the time of a lawsuit by black workers, 200 employees held a protest.

A group of Jewish employees later won $185,000 in a class action lawsuit over unfair promotions from 1974 to 1983.

In 1985, an investigative arm of Congress found that black men were underrepresented at all levels at the SSA and that black women were underrepresented in the most senior positions.

Since then, the employment picture has improved. The number of blacks at the SSA's most elite level in the Baltimore-area work force nearly doubled from 1989 to 1994, to 17. It has since grown to 31.

The agency's minority hiring and promotion rates, in addition to overall employment levels, are better than in the rest of the federal government and have improved in most categories in the past decade.

As of Oct. 1, 2004, black men made up 11 percent of the SSA's senior executive service, the most elite level of government employees, compared with 4.4 percent government-wide.

From 1994 to 2005, black females also made strides. Their proportion of jobs at the agency's four highest-ranking levels grew over that period to 13 percent from 9 percent.

Critics say the increases result from the Baltimore area's diversity. SSA officials attribute the improvements to their efforts.

Meanwhile, complaints continue.

Three years ago, SSA agreed to a $7.75 million settlement of a class action lawsuit by black men contending that they were passed up for promotions and training opportunities, unfairly evaluated and punished too harshly.

"When you start complaining about these situations, they make it hard for you," said Gilbert Jefferson of Columbia, one of the lead plaintiffs, who retired from the SSA five years ago after 40 years.

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