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USDA takes average of 630 days to process civil rights complaints, lawmakers told

For decades, the USDA has been accused of racial and gender discrimination in its programs, hiring, and employment practices, and it has been subject to both class action lawsuits and settlements. A hearing on Tuesday examined shortcomings in its handling of civil rights complaints and explored paths toward improvement.

“Serious issues have plagued the department’s complaint processing for more than half a century and undermine the ability to timely and effectively resolve civil rights complaints,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, chair of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, which held the hearing.

The hearing focused on a September 2021 audit report by the USDA’s Inspector General that reviewed complaints processed by the USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) between October 2016 and June 2019.

The report examined a subset of complaints and found that the OASCR took more than 630 days, on average, to process them. And the pace became increasingly sluggish over the course of the Trump presidency — slowing from an average of 594 days in FY 2017 to 799 days in FY 2019.

Resolving complaints quickly and effectively is “critical to addressing perceived discrimination in USDA programs, and building public trust and confidence that the department can serve all the people,” said Phyllis Fong, the USDA’s Inspector General, at the hearing.

Fong said that OASCR employees, when asked about the reasons for delays, said they were understaffed and needed better information technology systems.

The audit also found the office failed to document and justify its decisions. It concluded that the agency was not using its strategic plan to measure its progress because office managers had not established procedures for monitoring, reviewing, and reporting on its performance, which left officials unable to determine whether the agency was meeting its own goals.

Fong gave three top recommendations for how OASCR can improve its processing of civil rights complaints. First, it should set a clear time frame for processing complaints, and then make a plan to meet those goals. It should revisit its strategic plan and measure its performance against the plan. Finally, the office should make sure it has the data it needs to report on its progress, she said.

OASCR’s current head, Monica Rainge, the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, has agreed to act on all of the recommendations made in the audit report, Fong said, and the office of the inspector general has accepted the agency’s proposed actions.

The position of the assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, which requires Senate confirmation, was vacant for the entire Trump presidency, and Trump’s administration also proposed huge budget cuts for OASCR. President Biden nominated Margo Schlanger to the post in September; she awaits confirmation.

“Whenever a position is designated as one requiring a presidential appointee, there’s a reason for that,” Fong said. “That person sets a certain tone, has leadership responsibilities and sets policies at the highest level, which all sets the tone for the organization. And so we believe that it’s critical that these positions be filled.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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