Doing ‘right’ during a pandemic: How USDA is protecting civil rights during the COVID-19 crisis

As the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture remains committed to protecting the civil rights of our 100,000-strong OneUSDA family and our millions of customers. Put simply, there is no pandemic exception to our civil rights laws.

At USDA, our motto is simple: “Do Right and Feed Everyone.” In order to do Right, we must ensure that Everyone we serve is treated equally and respectfully. These principles animate our civil rights laws even during a global pandemic. That is why the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR)—which I am proud to lead—has taken steps during this public health crisis to improve the quality of and access to our vital services.

A critical task at any time, but especially during a period of great uncertainty, is reminding entities covered by civil rights authorities of their obligation to prohibit discrimination on all protected bases. During the COVID-19 crisis, OASCR’s dedicated civil rights professionals have not missed a beat in this regard. We have developed and disseminated major reports and policies, such as the Congressionally-mandated No FEAR annual report, revamped anti-harassment and civil rights policy statements, and a new reasonable accommodations and personal assistance services policy for the entire department. Delivering these reports and policies during such trying times demonstrates USDA’s commitment to be a model employer with civil rights protection as a bedrock objective.

With an eye toward creating a more effective, efficient and sustainable civil rights operation at USDA, OASCR has also placed a special focus on deploying resources to core civil rights functions. As a result, and in a matter of weeks, the OASCR civil rights enforcement arm—in collaboration with internal partners—significantly decreased the time it takes to investigate complaints of workplace discrimination and completely eliminated a substantial backlog of EEO investigations. OASCR has also launched a long-term strategic examination to improve the process by which USDA addresses alleged incidents of workplace discrimination from the informal resolution stage through formal adjudication. This “stem-to-stern” examination involves each area of USDA’s complaint investigation and adjudication functions to identify issues and to implement long-lasting reforms to create a resilient complaint processing operation.

Advertisement

Additionally, OASCR is fast becoming a leading federal civil rights organization for the modern era. The office is leveraging new technologies and drastically changing the way it presents information, both internally and externally. In the last few months, OASCR has implemented a wholesale modernization of its information technology systems and web presence. OASCR staff is also embracing the current times by increasingly using virtual dashboards to visualize and convey vital statistical information about complaint processing, civil rights impact analyses, access to civil rights services for our customers, and other data USDA needs to make the best, most informed decisions possible. Our response to the challenges posed by the pandemic confirm that OASCR is moving in the right direction and that there is no going back.

But even with the best technology available, no organization can truly succeed without the right people. In OASCR, we believe “personnel is policy.” That is why OASCR has made employee morale, support and accountability a top priority. For one, the office recently created an employee-led task force designed to amplify all voices and facilitate a healthy office morale. OASCR leadership has also worked to break down communication and collaboration barriers by hosting all-hands and division-level meetings—including virtually during a period of maximum telework brought on by the pandemic. Bringing our professionals closer in this way, listening to their ideas and concerns, and developing plans to address employee input fosters a positive work environment and creates a stronger, more unified civil rights office. That enriching environment benefits not only our OASCR Team, but also our customers.

President Abraham Lincoln referred to USDA as the “The People’s Department,” and for good reason. USDA’s important work touches the life of every American by supporting agriculture, food security, economic development, science, natural resource conservation and much more. Even amid the COVID-19 crisis, USDA has continued to deliver on its promises and live up to President Lincoln’s vision for an institution for all the people, where every employee and customer is treated with dignity and equality under the law. Whatever challenges we may face as a nation, one thing is certain: under the leadership of President Donald Trump and Secretary Sonny Perdue, and with the unwavering support of USDA civil rights professionals, USDA will always carry on its important work of doing Right by Everyone.

Devon Westhill is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.