Board of Commissioners approves Workforce Equity Strategic Plan

April 5, 2018

Clinical health specialist and Employees of Color ERG member Larry Turner (center) addresses the board as Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan (left) and Immigrants and Refugees ERG Chair Victoria Cross (right) look on.
The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday to adopt standards and performance measures to eliminate employment barriers for people of color and other marginalized groups and promote diversity and inclusion across the Multnomah County workforce.

The plan, known as the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, is the County’s response to longstanding inequities in the organization’s recruiting, hiring, professional development, promotion and retention practices. It is meant to serve as a starting point for additional work that builds upon the value of centering the voices of those most negatively impacted by the County’s existing and historical organizational culture and practice.

“It has been our uncomfortable truth that those who are qualified have not always been able to equally access and compete for jobs at the County. And, those hired as County employees have not always been able to take root, grow and advance,” the report reads. “Workforce equity demands that we identify and address structural and policy barriers to equal employment opportunity faced by our employees and communities because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation and other protected classes.”

The report identifies four areas in which to invest to begin dismantling systems and cultures that create an inequitable work environment. For each area -- organizational culture, promotion and professional development, retention, and recruitment and workforce pipelines -- the report identifies objectives, minimum standards and performance measures.

“As we work towards the outcomes laid out in this strategic plan, we will need to continue to establish trust with employees who have come out to support, but who also have been let down before,” Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan said. “As leaders in this organization, it is our obligation and opportunity to build a sense of safety, trust and belonging that comes with doing our work in partnership, centering the voices and experiences of those who bear the burden of workforce inequities, and utilizing and listening to the wisdom of those whose lived experiences have a lot to teach us and can help us to turn suffering to thriving.”

The Workforce Equity Strategic Plan has been under development since September when the board adopted a Workforce Equity resolution acknowledging that institutional and structural barriers exist at the County and must be eliminated in order to retain, support and provide opportunities to employees of color and those from other historically and currently underrepresented groups.

During that meeting, commissioners heard painful -- and sometimes tearful -- testimony from employees who had experienced discrimination at the County.

“Something powerful happened in this boardroom on that day. We heard and felt real experiences and calls for change,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “In those stories, there was pain, sadness and frustration. But there was also tremendous courage. And there was hope that we would not only listen to our employees, our partners, our community, but also take real action.”

The plan’s adoption also followed Tuesday’s release of two Countywide studies that offered some troubling information about County practices and employee satisfaction. The presentation also included preliminary findings on equity and accommodations for people with disabilities.  

A report on workforce trends, for instance, found that among regular hires, Black or African American employees were more likely to experience a probationary termination and 10 percent of Black or African Americans employees were terminated during their probationary period compared to 4 percent of white employees.

Meanwhile, an employee survey reported a 14 percent decline in employees’ overall satisfaction with the way things are going at the County since 2015. That report also listed discrimination as one of many negative reasons employees leave the County, along with unsupportive managers, an unmanageable workload, negative work environments, frustration with advancement opportunities, and feeling undervalued.

Dozens of County employees -- some wearing stickers honoring the Memphis sanitation workers who went on strike in 1968 to protest poor pay and dangerous working conditions -- attended Thursday’s meeting. They expressed both frustration at the County’s current state and a cautious optimism that the plan will bring change.

Many of those in attendance were members of the Employee Resource Groups that played a critical role in developing the plan, including military veterans, immigrants and refugees, people of color and people with disabilities.

“Over and over again for six months, I heard the pain of every single one of our employees that was brave enough to step into those spaces and share with us how difficult their experience was as a public servant in Multnomah County,” said Scotty Sherington, who works in the Office of Diversity and Equity and serves as co-chair of Prism the Employee Resource Group focusing on ensuring equity and inclusion for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) County employees. But Scott said they also heard that “our employees love their jobs because they want to serve their communities, they want to help their communities and they want to make life easier for people that look like them, that come from where they come and that share the same lived experiences that they incurred.”

Multnomah County Employees of Color ERG members raise their fists in solidarity at the Thursday’s board meeting.
The County is at risk of losing future generations of such employees as Millennials who identify with marginalized or oppressed groups choose to work elsewhere.

“My hope is that someday the Latina lesbian who moves to this country for a better life can work here and serve her community and go home every night not as exhausted as so many of our employees do on a daily basis. That the black, trans woman who lives with a disability can come here, make a living wage and have a family and not go home in tears everyday because of something her coworker said or her manager,” Scot said. “I’ve been a County employee for 11 years now and I’ve lost count of how many times I went home crying… I am a white, transgender, non-binary immigrant who lives with a disability. I have to hide half of that here on a daily basis. But, not anymore. That’s just not fair.”

In a passionate call to arms, Larry Turner, a clinical health specialist and Employees of Color ERG member, demanded action.

“There’s a lot of double standards that go on here in Multnomah County, particularly with employees of color. We can be doing just as good or better work, but we’re passed over for promotions for whatever reason,” Turner said. “I know you guys have the opportunity and ability to make a change.”

“We need to get serious and we need to get honest with one another. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be painful. Things are going to be said that people aren’t going to like,” Turner added.
“Some people are going to get uncomfortable. Some people are going to walk out the room.”

The Workforce Equity Strategic Plan follows months of collaboration between employees and community and labor partners and the Office of Diversity and Equity. The strategies included in the plan are intended to increase transparency, trauma-informed practices, cultural responsiveness and inclusiveness in the County’s hierarchy, communication style, expectations and accountability.

The County’s performance in those areas will be tracked annually and the overall plan will be updated in four years.

Duncan said the minimum standards identified in the plan are a starting point, a way to get alignment and consistency across the County in the targeted areas.

“I want to be clear though, that the framing of minimum standards is just that,” Duncan said. “I trust and challenge us to recognize that we will need to go deeper over time to create the true change and organizational shifts that will be necessary to address long-standing and pervasive issues.”

The Board, at the request of Commissioner Loretta Smith, amended the plan so that the recommendations of a national human resources consultant be included. Then the Board voted unanimously to approve the plan.

Employees of Color Chair Raymond De Silva echoed that point, calling on the board to continue to champion and invest in workforce equity.

“This heaviness in our heart can be lifted. It depends on what we do now to get it right,” De Silva said. “Please reflect and make this your dream.”