In a major turning point in the County’s efforts to create a more equitable workplace, the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday accepted a national consultant’s recommendations for structural and organizational changes in a standing-room-only board meeting.
The recommendations, created by the Jemmott Rollins Group and prioritized by County employees, are expected to strengthen the strategies and performance measures in the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. More than 870 employees weighed in on the strategies in a survey. About 150 employees attended lunch and learns and another 140 worked with employee resource groups to respond to the recommendations, made late last year.
“I continue to be grateful, and feel an incredible privilege to be doing this work at this time with so many dedicated employees who continue—despite all that so many have endured—to hold hope that the actions that we are and will take will ultimately make not just theirs, but future employees of Multnomah County feel the sense of safety, trust and belonging that is so critical to our potential as an institution,” Ben Duncan, the Chief Diversity and Equity Officer, said before the Board of County Commissioners.
In fall 2017, Chair Deborah Kafoury directed the County’s Chief Operating Officer Marissa Madrigal to review Multnomah County’s policies and procedures to determine how they negatively impact employees of color. The County chose Jemmott Rollins Group to conduct the yearlong investigation into the County’s workplace culture.
The recommendations outlined concrete actions the County should take to successfully implement the County’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. Those recommendations included creating an independent unit to investigate complaints, increasing management accountability, improving workplace communication about workforce equity, and clarifying expectations for staff.
“Workforce equity is not something we can put on the back burner or a policy that collects dust on the shelf,” Aimeera Flint, a Health Department employee involved with the plan said. “ We must make this a priority. The time is now.”
Before adopting the recommendations, the County underwent an intensive staff engagement process that involved nearly 1,000 County employees. The survey found that, of the numerous recommendations proposed, staff broadly supported:
Developing clear Countywide communication for “leading with race.”
Transferring responsibility for protected class complaints to an independent unit.
Designing a leadership development and accountability model.
“We need to not simply invest in and develop equity tools, but we need to ensure that what we create is utilized and implemented across the organization,” Duncan said. “We are here today to adopt all of the recommendations, while being informed by what employees have listed as priority work.”
At Thursday’s Board meeting, the commissioners heard firsthand from staff representing Employees of Color, Including Disability in Equity and Access, Immigrants and Refugees, Vital Aging Network, and PRISM employee resource groups. Together, they shared their experiences as County employees and their hopes for a workplace that “leads with race.”
“Some say timing is everything—the time for racial equity to be unleashed is now,” Raymond De Silva, who chairs Employees of Color, said during testimony. “EOC is in full support of the implementation draft and the direction where we can go as a County.”
When Dana Thompson first interviewed for a position for the Health Department, she says she remembers sitting in the waiting area and being amazed to see more people of color in the workplace than at any one of her previous jobs. At that moment, she says, she knew she had to have the job. But she was hurt when, after being hired, she heard of employees’ experiences of feeling unheard. She knew she wanted to be part of the solution.
“I don’t want to work anywhere else,” she said. “Together, we can get this work done. We can hold each other to the task and goals this plan is set to achieve, if we stand by one another in a single voice from this point forward.”
As a woman of color, Commissioner Lori Stegmann said she shares employees’ concerns about equity at the County. She said she knows what it feels like to feel like to feel alone in a workplace.
“If we don’t have the workforce and the heart to help our employees deliver lifesaving services, we can’t accomplish our mission,” she said. “You’re standing your sacred ground. I just want to say that I will be the commissioner that will stand with you. I know this entire board does.”
With the adopted recommendations, the County is expected to implement a communications plan to help employees follow the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. And subcommittees featuring employee resource groups, County leaders, subject matter experts, labor representatives, and community partners will track priorities outlined in the plan.
Chair Kafoury thanked everyone who participated in the process and reflected that in addition to hope and pain, she had heard skepticism and hesitancy that change would happen.
“I get that,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “We know there have been other plans before, especially people of color have been promised, as have your parents and grandparents, that things are going to change and they haven’t. I understand we need to build trust.
“But I am moved by the hope and excitement. When I think why this will be different, it’s because we are all working together, because it’s not just me, or Ben, or the commissioners, it’s all of us together."
To follow developments on the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, visit the Workforce Equity Initiative webpage.