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Missouri State Agencies Are Less Diverse Than State Population

At 14 of 16 executive branch agencies, the percentage of non-white employees is less than the share of the state’s minority population. A 2010 diversity requirement is now at odds with growing GOP suspicion of DEI efforts.

(TNS) — Percy Johnson had worked in environmental health for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services since 1995, but after nearly two decades with the agency he had trouble advancing.

In 2014, Johnson, who says he was the only Black environmental health specialist in the agency, applied for a higher position. He didn’t get the job – or the three jobs he applied for after that. His workload grew, he alleges, after filing a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

After returning to the office from a site evaluation one day, Johnson was summoned to the human resources department. The request was odd, but he didn’t think too much of it.

“Then they give me this letter saying this is my last day, I’m being terminated,” Johnson, now 57, said.

In Missouri, many state agencies are far less racially and ethnically diverse than the state as a whole. At 14 of 16 executive branch agencies surveyed, the percentage of non-white employees is less than the share of the state population who identify as minorities on the U.S. Census, according to statistics produced by the state.

Interviews with advocates for minority workers, workforce experts, legislators and others suggest a variety of explanations for the shortfall, from racism to geography to long-term problems surrounding low pay for state workers. State officials say they are committed to diversity efforts.

Just over 14 percent of state executive branch employees are non-white, according to the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity’s annual report. By contrast, the report places the state’s minority population at about 23 percent, based on U.S. Census data.

“That’s not a great look for the state,” said Shirley Jones, president of the national organization Blacks in Government, who reviewed the report at The Star’s request.

While state agencies are required to have workforce diversity plans under an executive order signed by former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in 2010, efforts to improve diversity are now playing out amid growing suspicion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts by some GOP officials. They contend DEI programs are becoming ways to promote identity politics rooted in left-wing ideology.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican expected to run for governor, in recent weeks targeted a job posting for a “Diversity, Equity and Belonging Leader” within the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, where just under 7 percent of employees are people of color.

And on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Missouri Republican, criticized DEI efforts within the military at a hearing with Defense Department officials.

Missouri state legislators are also considering banning public colleges from requiring DEI statements from applicants, employees, students or contractors. Some advocates for greater representation fear the criticism risks creating a larger chilling effect on diversity programs.

“I am concerned about the lack of minorities that are in state government. I just feel like if those clauses are removed, it’s going to take us farther back in time,” said state Rep. Marlene Terry, a St. Louis Democrat who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.

Missouri Lost Minority Workers

Missouri has lost ground slightly over the past three years, with the percentage of minority workers slipping from 14.71 percent to 14.38 percent, a drop that occurred as state government as a whole shed thousands of jobs amid the pandemic. Last year, just under 5,500 workers identified as non-white, according to the report, which compiles the statistics using self-disclosures by employees.

The underrepresentation is especially stark in some agencies. At the Department of Conservation and the Department of Agriculture, the percentage of non-white employees is less than 4 percent. At just two agencies, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Economic Development, is the percentage of non-white employees greater than the share of the statewide population.

Missouri also falls behind in every specific racial or ethnic category tracked in the report. The percentage of Black employees, 10.64 percent, comes the closest to matching the statewide percentage of 11.8 percent.

But the percentage of Hispanic employees, at 1.27 percent, is well under the 4.7 percent statewide figure. Asian employees constitute 1.11 percent of state employees but 2.2 percent of the state population. Other racial and ethnic categories each comprise less than 1 percent of the government workforce.

State Rep. Robert Sauls, an Independence Democrat who is Hispanic, called the lack of diversity concerning. Qualified people with diverse backgrounds “maybe sometimes aren’t getting considered and I think that’s just a shame.”

Sauls noted that he is one of just two Hispanic state legislators in Missouri.

“My first year, there were six Jeffs. There were two Hispanic legislators and six people by the name of Jeff in the House,” Sauls said.

Missouri NAACP president Nimrod Chapel, Jr., said the data within the report helps explain concerns the organization has heard from individuals who have applied for work in state government and not had a viable opportunity.

“Or once they’re there finding themselves at the business end of getting booted out the door,” Chapel said.

Chapel, an attorney, is representing Johnson in an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in Cole County Circuit Court. The lawsuit, first filed in 2017, remains ongoing amid numerous delays.

Johnson alleges in the lawsuit that he faced age and race-based discrimination, as well as retaliation. In a court filing, DHSS has denied that Johnson was the only Black environmental health specialist working for Missouri. The agency has also denied the allegations of discrimination and retaliation.

The agency’s actions were taken “for legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory business reasons,” the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is defending DHSS, said in a court document. DHSS declined to comment on Wednesday, citing pending litigation.

Over the course of his career with the state, Johnson said the issue of race would sometimes emerge in subtle ways. As an example, he recounted how, arriving at a hotel for a work conference once in street clothes, his co-workers didn’t recognize him until he later changed into professional attire.

He also described suspicions of discriminatory conduct in the Missouri National Guard, which he left in 2012 as a master sergeant after 24 years of service that included deployment to Iraq in 2005 and 2006. The Missouri National Guard faced multiple allegations of discrimination in the years before Johnson departed.

Asked about under-representation across state government, Johnson pointed to a lack of recruitment as well as challenges retaining employees once they’re in the door. If agencies don’t have people of color at upper and middle management levels, he said, it becomes more difficult to attract minorities at lower and entry-level positions.

“It starts at the top,” Johnson said.

Diversity Efforts Ongoing

The executive branch has been working for years to encourage diversity through the Office of Equal Opportunity, which is located within the Missouri Department of Administration under the leadership of Republican Gov. Mike Parson. The office says it advocates on behalf of minorities and women to ensure representation in the state workforce, as well their inclusion in the state’s procurement process for goods and services. About 54 percent of state employees are women compared to about 51 percent of the state population.

The office also mounts educational and outreach programs to promote diversity and inclusion. Every agency must have a workforce diversity plan. The Office of Equal Opportunity says officials have autonomy to develop the “unique challenges and needs” of each individual.

Diana Hilliard, the office’s director, said in an interview that Missouri currently has about 7,000 open positions. The state is open and “we are hiring,” she said, underscoring the need for employees from all sorts of backgrounds.

“We would emphasize that diversity and inclusion for the state is not just limited to ethnicity and race. It includes a variety of things,” Hilliard said. “We look at disability, veteran’s status, sex, all the various things that create a diverse workforce so that we can work better for the state of Missouri.”

After a reporter told Hilliard this story would explore diversity issues within state government, Hilliard pushed back on the framing, saying “we do not see that we have diversity issues, as you say.”

“We believe that we are working very hard at embracing and encouraging diversity in every department and agency in the state,” Hilliard said.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, one of the largest agencies with some 4,500 employees, illustrates the approach of one agency. At MoDOT, 8.61 percent of employees are non-white.

The agency has an affirmative action plan, which outlines how its Equal Opportunity and Diversity Division hosts regional conferences, offers monthly events and sponsors several programs.

The initiatives include a mentoring program to aid professional development, a youth transportation conference to encourage young people from diverse backgrounds to consider engineering and transportation-related fields, as well as an internship program and employee resources groups.

MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson Horn said the biggest issue facing the agency is overall staffing and turnover. From 2018 through 2021, the agency lost more than 600 employees. In the last budget year, an additional 900 workers left, Horn said in an email.

“We are working on overall recruiting for all positions and our outreach to minority communities to encourage all of our employment opportunities,” she said.

Parson last month signed a bill giving all state workers an 8.7 percent raise. The governor has said the $627 million plan is necessary to help fill the thousands of open jobs across state government.

Jones, the president of Black in Government, said that based on the Office of Equal Opportunity report, Missouri officials want to enhance diversity. But she urged agencies to not simply focus on recruiting employees, including workers of color, but to also emphasize retention.

“Their data paints a picture that Missouri has a lot of work to do,” Jones said. “I applaud them for their transparency, for sure, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make the state workforce representative of the state itself.”

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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