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Elements of an Inclusive Workforce Development System

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The following excerpt is from remarks delivered by Ms. Foster at a national Equal Opportunity Conference in Washington, DC:

It is a privilege for me to be here today, and this has been such an impressive line-up of civil rights experts.

The importance of you and the equal opportunity work you perform in the field of workforce development at this pivotal time in our country’s history cannot be overstated. If we hope to have a stronger, more stable economy at the national level, it must start with you at the local level.

Underlying everything we do in the field of equal opportunity is the concept that we don’t leave segments of our population behind to dead end. We want to help folks in our communities get jobs, or get better jobs. We want to find a way for all members of our community to engage and be productive, contributing citizens.

The vast majority of us and vast majority of the citizens in our communities are not independently wealthy. So, if we aren’t working, we aren’t earning money. And, if we aren’t earning money, we aren’t able to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, or clothes on our backs. And, where does that lead? Logically, it leads to increased demand on our safety net programs—homeless shelters or public housing, food stamps, free medical care, the list goes on.

No one has ever been able to explain to me how a stronger, more stable economy is built on leaving segments of a community behind in our workforce development programs whether it is women, minorities, limited English proficient persons, persons with disabilities, folks of a certain age, Veterans, or folks of certain religious beliefs.

Getting systems in place to move all of our populations forward, and training staff on the use of these systems, is where we need to spend a little time and thought as equal opportunity professionals. Not every customer is going to move along the same track, or at the same pace. The point is to get them moving as opposed to setting them off to the side.

As you work to develop inclusive workforce development systems, keep in mind these four core elements—communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment—must be front and center in your planning. Every speaker here today has addressed one or more of these elements. And, I am going to briefly describe each of these elements, and why they are important.

Communication

Communication takes two forms. First, is the one most of us think of immediately; that is, being able to understand what a customer is saying, and ensuring the customer understands us. So, if establishing that baseline communication with our customer means using a sign language interpreter, captioning, or a language line, than that is what needs to happen.

Now, the next level of communication involves “notice.” Notice to the public of what programs we have to offer, notice about how to access our programs, and notice that we operate these programs in compliance with the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity mandates of WIOA Section 188. Providing notice includes prominently displaying that “Equal Opportunity Is the Law” notice wherever we do business, and publishing our discrimination complaint procedures and forms.

On the other end of things, notice also includes making sure employers, to the extent they use screening tools like e-Verify or criminal background checks, give notice of any disqualifying adverse information to the potential applicant and allow the applicant an opportunity to explain or dispute it.

So, an inclusive workforce development program means we are able to communicate with our customers, and we convey important notices to them about their rights and our obligations under the nondiscrimination and equal opportunity provisions of WIOA Section 188.

Access

Access is another core element of an inclusive program. Access means folks have access to apply for, or participate in, our programs or activities. And, denial of access can take a variety of shapes.

One example is holding a training course on the first floor of a building, but folks have to get up the two steps at the entrance to the building. Without a ramp, some folks with mobility disabilities, who qualify to take this course, would be denied access to participate.

Another example of denial of access is one that I came across when I visited a particular locality to conduct training. The job referral counselor at the center would not even consider women for construction-related training or apprenticeship programs in welding, carpentry, masonry, and so on. Here, women who met the essential eligibility requirements for such training were denied access to even to apply for these programs.

And, access is a rising issue as we move forward with more internet-based application and enrollment processes. We are at the very beginning of what I describe as the incoming technology tsunami. The harnessing and use of various technologies on the market will undoubtedly strengthen many aspects of our workforce development programs and activities by building in efficiencies at a greater savings of staffing and money resources.

We’ve already seen the use of technology increase exponentially in the processing of unemployment insurance claims. And, the use of technology is growing in other areas such as computerized matching of a customer’s skills to available jobs in the market.

While these advances work for the vast majority of our populations, certain segments of our community’s population will be left behind. Persons with certain disabilities, and folks who are not able to read or write English very well could be denied access to programs for which they would otherwise be qualified.

I’ve heard some folks ask, why should we build systems around the exceptions? These folks need to come into the 21st Century.

Keep in mind, there is room in this country for all of us. Not every job out there requires an IT background, or access to the Internet. Not every job requires the ability to read, write, or speak English. Landscapers, cleaners, movers, certain construction trades, and caregivers are some examples of occupations that may not require IT savvy, access to the internet, or the ability to speak or understand English.

And, you’ve got some folks who are IT-savvy and understand English but, for example, they have a disability and need some type of auxiliary aid or service to navigate the internet application process.

The key here is to figure out what safety valves can be put in place in your particular community to ensure these populations aren’t left out. And, I think this is an excellent opportunity for the kinds of civil rights experts we’ve heard from today to establish a working group that includes folks like you and other interested stakeholders to work collaboratively to come up with some “best practices,” develop low or no cost resources, and generate ideas for resource-sharing and partnerships in our communities, to get these safety valves in place.

Integration

Beyond communication and access, we have the element of integration.

Decades ago, “Separate but Equal” was considered an acceptable way of doing business—whites could go to certain schools, blacks could go to other schools. Wisdom prevailed and we learned as a society that it is not healthy to divide ourselves by the color of our skin. Each of us has value beyond these surface qualities.

Unfortunately, the “Separate but Equal” concept is still with us, but it has morphed into other areas.

I’ll give you an example.

Too often, our workforce development programs are designed to channel persons with disabilities into separate tracks out of the gate. Regardless of the disability, or what the customer would like to do, we channel the customer to a single person at the center, or to rehabilitative services.

Earlier this year, I was asked to conduct training at a particular locality and visited one of its centers to gather a better understanding of how that locality operated its workforce development programs. The center had four job referral counselors. However, any person with a disability, regardless of the disability, would be referred to the one counselor designated as the “disability job referral counselor.” And, if that counselor was in a meeting, out of the office, or otherwise unavailable, the person with a disability had to make an appointment to come back another day.

On this particular day, a customer who was deaf came in and handed the greeter a resume and a card asking for sign language interpreter services so he could meet with a job referral counselor.

The “disability job referral counselor” at the center was out on vacation, one other counselor had a customer in her office, and two counselors were available.

At first, the center manager was going to ask the gentleman to reschedule a time the following week when the disability job referral counselor returned from vacation.

But, after a little discussion, the center manager called for a sign language interpreter who would arrive in the next 30 to 40 minutes. And, the manager had one of the available counselors at the center call the relay line in the meantime to get the process started.

As an aside, I’ll tell you that the customer on this particular day was a CPA and had advanced degrees in accounting as well as executive level accounting experience for a large company. He had relocated because of his wife’s change of jobs, and wanted assistance finding a job in his new community.

Here, the center provided assistance to him on the day he came, and did not ask that he make an appointment to come back in one or two weeks when the “disability job referral counselor” returned from vacation.

So, offering integrated services means here that each counselor should be able to take each customer in order, without regard to whether the person has a disability, is limited English proficient, is a Veteran, is a woman, and so on.

Individualized treatment

Finally, in addition to communication, access, and integration, our systems need to be designed provide individualized treatment.

The purpose of our workforce development programs is to move folks from unemployment to employment, or to transition folks from certain jobs to better jobs.

If someone comes to one of your centers directly, or comes through the unemployment insurance portal, individualized treatment requires that we start with that individual’s baseline.

What does this mean? It means we take an individual as we find him or her and work from there. We ask the customer, what skills, education, interests, and talents do you bring to the table?

At the other end of the spectrum, we take a look around to see what jobs are in our community and the skills and education required for those jobs. If we find a match, we make a referral.

If we don’t find a match, we look to bridge the gap. The first step across the bridge for some customers may be the local community college to obtain a certification, diploma, or degree. For others, the first step may be attending English as a Second Language classes.

But, keep in mind that not everyone is cut out for these types of educational pursuits. We don’t have to force all of our customers into the school or college pipeline for workforce development.

We’ve got other pipelines. Apprenticeships to learn a trade, on-the-job training, and licensing programs are some examples.

Keep in mind, folks don’t come to us out of nowhere—they have histories, they have skills, they have interests. Our job is to figure out what they bring to the table in terms of skills, education, and experience, and what workforce development pipelines would be suitable given their background and interests. And, if figuring out what someone brings to the table requires the use of a language line, captioning, or sign language interpreter services, then make sure that happens.

At the end of the day, our systems should be inclusive.

Inclusive systems will afford women access to opportunities in nontraditional fields. Inclusive systems mean we won’t skip over persons with disabilities, or persons who are limited English proficient, because we don’t know what to do with them, or because it takes a little extra time to get a sign language interpreter or connect to the language line.

Inclusive systems mean we’ll encourage employers focus first and foremost on an applicant’s qualifications, push the use of screening tools like criminal background checks and e-Verify, for example, as far back in the process as possible. And, we’ll stress the importance of employers giving an applicant the opportunity to explain, challenge, or clear-up any adverse results that surface through the use of these screening tools.

In the delivery of inclusive workforce development activities and programs, the elements of communication, access, integration, and individualized treatment are present.

From unemployment insurance to on-the-job training to resume writing assistance to job referrals to referrals for an apprenticeship program to counseling and many others, the key is to ensure all members of our population know about the programs, and have access to the programs. Make sure we are serving folks in as integrated a setting as possible, not placing folks off to the side because we don’t know what to do with them. And, we give folks individualized treatment to ensure their success.

At the end of the day, if a customer meets the essential eligibility requirements for a workforce development program or activity, then the customer must be allowed to enroll, apply, and participate.

Thank you for your time, and I wish you every success in the important work you do.

Discrimination Complaint Investigations: Focus on Controlling the Process, Not the Parties by Seena Foster

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

When a discrimination complaint is filed in a government program, or in the workplace, there are concerns regarding confidentiality, retaliation, and the threat of harm to public or professional reputations. The advent of electronic mail and a myriad of social media sites compound the complexity of these concerns. The bottom line is, you will not be able to control the actions of the parties to a discrimination complaint but, as an investigator, you can control your own actions as well as the investigative process. In this paper, we’ll discuss when and to whom you give notice of a discrimination complaint and how to maintain control over the investigative process.

For federally funded programs or activities, a discrimination complaint is filed by a Charging Party alleging denial of benefits, services, aid, or training by the Respondent on a prohibited basis (i.e. race, color, national origin, age, gender, disability, and so on). The Charging Party (CP) is a beneficiary, or potential beneficiary, of a federally funded program. The Respondents are the (1) agency or other entity operating the program, and (2) the employee acting on behalf of the agency or entity.

One example of discrimination in a government program is where a college professor gives one of his students a higher grade in exchange for sex. The student (CP) files a quid pro quo sexual harassment complaint against the college and its professor (Respondents). Another example is where the unemployment insurance counselor at a one stop career center refuses to assist persons with hearing impairments because it takes too much time. Here, the persons with hearing impairments (CPs) file a disability-based discrimination complaint against the unemployment insurance counselor and the one stop career center (Respondents).

An example of a workplace discrimination complaint is where a supervisor gives a black subordinate an adverse performance appraisal. The employee (Complainant) would file a color-based discrimination complaint against the supervisor (Respondent).

√ Determining jurisdiction

The first step for any investigator when s/he receives a discrimination complaint is determining jurisdiction. Is there authority to investigate a particular complaint? Here, the investigator is looking at things such as timeliness, apparent merit, protected class characteristics, and so on.

At this initial stage, the investigator is not determining whether the allegations are true; rather, s/he is merely figuring out whether the complaint meets certain basic jurisdictional requirements. Most often, this stage of the investigation involves communicating only with the CP or Complainant. Because the complaint has not officially been accepted for investigation, there is no need to notify the named Respondents of the complaint at this time.

Moreover, generally, if the investigator finds that s/he is without jurisdiction to investigate a complaint (i.e. it is untimely, lacks apparent merit, and the like), then written notice of that fact must be provided to the CP or Complainant, but it may not be necessary to provide the named Respondents with such notice. Check with the civil rights office of your federal funding agency for requirements applicable to you.

√ Accepting the complaint

If the investigator concludes that s/he has jurisdiction over the complaint and will accept it for investigation, then all parties to the complaint must receive notice of what is being investigated and must have an opportunity to respond to the notice.

For a complaint involving a federally funded program or activity, this notice generally is provided to the CP, and the named Respondents. Some federal funding agencies also may request notice that you’ve accepted a complaint. In a workplace complaint, the Complainant is provided notice as well as the Respondent, who may be a supervisor, manager, co-worker, contractor, or the like.

And, in complaints involving harassment or hostile environment, higher-ranking officials in the chain of command may need to be served with the notice.

√ Why do both parties need to know?

Providing notice to both parties that you have accepted a discrimination complaint for investigation is required because each party needs to be allowed to present evidence. Most discrimination complaints arise under the disparate treatment legal theory. Here, the CP or Complainant must demonstrate a prima facie case that discrimination occurred by a preponderance of the evidence; that is, it is more likely than not that prohibited discrimination occurred. Then the burden shifts to the Respondents to present legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for their conduct. Finally, the burden shifts back to the CP or Complainant to demonstrate that the Respondents proffered reasons are pretextual.

Therefore, both sides of the dispute will need to participate in the investigative process.

√ The conduct of the investigation

At this point, both sides of the dispute are aware of the investigation. You will not have control over whether a party or witness talks, e-mails, or tweets about the complaint. And, an investigator is cautioned against seeking to impose “gag” orders on anyone involved. Nor should an investigator threaten disciplinary action or other sanctions against any party or witness discussing the matter. These are not useful tactics and they may constitute a violation of certain federal laws. Indeed, certain private employers must be mindful of the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board in Banner Health System and Navarro, 358 NLRB 93 (July 30, 2012) (an employer may not apply a rule prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing investigations of employee insubordination as this violates the National Labor Relations Act).

Some investigators may want to “expedite” matters by conducting an “informal” investigation without written notice to either party. This is problematic. In order for your investigation to be fair to both parties, the parties must know the issue that you are looking into for purposes of the complaint, and they must have an opportunity to be heard on the issue.

Some investigators in educational programs and activities may be hesitant to issue written notices out of concern that students may disseminate the notices via e-mail, Facebook, or the like, thus hindering the ability to conduct a fair investigation.

In such situations, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the Respondent educational institution will (or should) have privacy and confidentiality policies related to these discrimination complaint investigations, and these policies should be widely-published. Although the policies bind the investigator and his or her organizations in respecting the privacy of parties and confidentiality of the investigative process, it may be useful to provide a copy of these policies to the CP or Complainant and the alleged wrongdoer(s). Here, you do not seek to control the actions of the parties (as this a losing battle); rather, you seek to increase their awareness of the importance of confidentiality and privacy in these investigations.

Although “gag” orders and disciplinary threats are not recommended ways to curb open discussions of an ongoing discrimination investigation, the following points can be made verbally and in writing to the parties:

● Acceptance of the complaint of discrimination does not mean that discrimination has occurred. It only means that there is authority to start the investigation of the complaint (i.e. the complaint was timely filed and so on). At this point, information will be gathered from both sides to determine whether each of the allegations in the complaint is proven or not proven. If the allegations are not proven, then a written finding that discrimination is not proven will be issued. If the allegations are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, then a written finding of discrimination will issue.

When issuing a written notice accepting a discrimination complaint for investigation, the investigator may decide to include the following language at the beginning of the written notice:

THIS NOTICE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A FINDING THAT ANY DISCRIMINATION HAS OCCURRED. THE SOLE PURPOSE OF THIS NOTICE IS TO INFORM THE PARTIES THAT I HAVE RECEIVED A DISCRIMINATION COMPLAINT AND I HAVE AUTHORITY TO INVESTIGATE IT.

An investigator can reinforce his or her expectations that the parties should focus their energies on aiding with the investigation. The investigator, in turn, will focus on getting to the bottom of the allegations made to determine whether prohibited discrimination took place.

● An investigator should make clear that the conduct of the CP or Complainant and the Respondents during the investigation will be considered in determining whether the investigative process is being improperly utilized to harass a party, retaliate against a party, or the like. And, any written communications of the parties at the time of the incident at issue, including e-mail exchanges and postings on social media may be gathered and analyzed to determine the motives of the parties.

● The parties should be reminded that the purpose of the investigative process is not to threaten, intimidate, retaliate against, or humiliate either party. They should understand that it is the investigator’s job to develop the evidence and determine what happened.

● The one person whose conduct can be controlled in this entire process is that of the investigator. To maintain credibility, an investigator must be discrete, non-judgmental with both parties, and confidential in his or her words (written and verbal) and actions. An investigator should not discuss the investigation with co-workers, friends, or family. There should be no interference from outside sources seeking to dictate the course and/or outcome of the investigation. And, the investigator must have authority to report directly to the highest-ranking official of the agency, company, or organization. The parties have come to the investigator because they need to have a problem solved. The investigator should be part of the solution to the problem as opposed to being part of its continuation or escalation.

● It is important for an investigator to be organized and to resolve the complaint as soon as practicable. Whether the discrimination complaint stems from the operation of a government program or conduct in the workplace, efforts at counseling and/or mediation early in the process can be very helpful.

● Finally, complaints of harassment and hostile environment present some additional challenges for the investigator. Prior to the filing of any such complaint, leadership at an agency, company, educational institution, or other organization must make sure it has specific written steps in place for separating the individuals involved. Although an investigator must gather evidence and statements to determine whether the allegations of harassment and hostile environment are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, steps must be taken in the interim to provide relief and protection for the CP or Complainant from the alleged wrongdoer(s). And, for such complaints arising in the workplace, the EEOC encourages the investigator to keep the identity of the Complainant, and the information collected, as confidential as possible. There is a reality that the investigator needs to be able to collect evidence and question witnesses about the event at issue. The idea, however, is that the investigator should exercise diligence and caution, and should refrain from openly discussing the investigation in the workplace.

√ The final determination

Once the investigation is completed, a written determination of findings and conclusions must be sent to the parties. In complaints involving federally funded programs and activities, the federal funding agency also may require that you submit a copy to it. And, some federal funding agencies require that the written determination be sent to the state Governor’s office. The determination should provide the parties with a notice of any appeal rights available to them should they wish to challenge the determination. Similarly, final agency actions issued after investigation of workplace disputes must comply with EEOC requirements. For a description of those requirements, go to www.eeoc.gov.

Again, the investigator should not offer side comments or other statements to anyone. The determination will speak for itself and it should be only in the hands of the persons who are required to be notified. Otherwise, the investigative file containing notes, evidence, witness statements, notices, and determinations must be kept confidential, and secured in a location with limited (“need to know”) access.

√ About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, K-12 public school systems, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her Web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through on-site training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

The Importance of “The Script” by Seena Foster

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

In this article, we look at the importance of having sound policies and procedures in place for ensuring the nondiscriminatory delivery of aid, training, benefits, and services to the public and the importance of sticking to these policies and procedures. For purposes here, we will call the policies and procedures, the “script.”

Successful discrimination complaints stem from one of three problems: (1) no script; (2) a bad script; or (3) deviation from a good script.

Let’s start with “no script.” No script means that you do not have any policies or procedures in place for handling a particular situation. In these circumstances, too much discretion is left with staff members and this, in turn, leads to inconsistent (and perhaps discriminatory) handling of issues. For example, Jane Doe comes to an American Job Network Center seeking assistance with her resume. She is deaf and requests the assistance of a sign-language interpreter. Without policies and procedures in place for handling this request, how does a staff member know what to do? Indeed, there may be disagreement among staff regarding a proper response to the request. In the meantime, time is ticking and Ms. Doe becomes increasingly frustrated with her lack of access to your services and files a complaint with you. The importance of having a script cannot be overstated.

Next, we’ll move to the bad script. Here, you have policies and procedures in place, but they are either incomplete, or result in a disparate impact on a class of beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. One example of a bad script is in the area of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. Mr. Sanchez, whose native language is Spanish, comes to your American Job Network Center seeking to apply for UI benefits. Your policies and procedures provide that you hand him a packet of forms. This is the same packet of forms you hand to anyone seeking UI benefits. The forms are written in English. Mr. Sanchez cannot understand the forms because he is limited English proficient (LEP). On its face, you have a neutral policy and procedure in place for your staff to follow–everyone seeking UI benefits gets the same set of forms. However, the policy has a disparate impact on LEP persons like Mr. Sanchez. Your script does not address this situation and Mr. Sanchez is effectively denied access to apply for the UI benefits.

Finally, let’s look at the good script that is not followed. In this scenario, you have policies and procedures in place that are sound, but staff is not following them. Deviation from established policies and procedures may be intentional or unintentional, but the result is the same—the process is left open to discriminatory treatment of beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries. Sometimes, policies and procedures are not followed because staff is simply unaware that they exist or they do not know how to properly implement them. This is generally the product of inadequate training. Other times, the staff member will be aware of the script, but chooses to deviate from it. This, too, presents problems.

For example, Mr. Doe serves as an employment referral counselor at an American Job Network Center. Widget Manufacturing Company states that it would like referral of five applicants to fill an accountant position. The company specifies that a bachelor’s degree is required along with one year of relevant experience. The script provides that Mr. Doe is to refer only those applicants who meet an employer’s stated requirements.

Mr. Doe has four applicants that he refers, and these applicants meet the company’s stated requirements. However, Mr. Doe also refers a fifth applicant, who has the bachelor’s degree with only six months of relevant experience. Mr. Doe explains that he referred the fifth applicant because he has worked with the applicant for several months and he knows what a “great person” the applicant is. You receive a discrimination complaint from a non-referred applicant who alleges he had the same qualifications as the fifth referred applicant (a bachelor’s degree and six months of experience).

In this example, Mr. Doe had “good intentions” when referring the fifth applicant who did not meet the company’s stated requirements, but he exposed the Center to a discrimination complaint because he deviated from the script.

Thus, as the Equal Opportunity professional for your agency, company, or organization, you should conduct periodic reviews of the policies and procedures for your federally-funded programs and activities, tweak them as needed to correct problems, and ensure staff is trained on the policies and procedures as well as the importance of adhering to them.

About Seena Foster.

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at seena@titleviconsulting.com, or visit her Web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.

By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of American Job Network centers (formerly One Stop Career Centers), and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.

With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through her mediation services, training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” Ms. Foster obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.

She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.

Library Essentials for Equal Opportunity Professionals

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

The responsibility of investigating and deciding discrimination complaints generally lies with equal opportunity (EO) professionals.  Discrimination complaints may arise in the workplace, or in the delivery of federally-funded and federally-assisted programs and activities.  Indeed, with regard to the delivery of federally-assisted aid, training, services, or benefits, addressing discrimination complaints is one of the key responsibilities of the EO professional at the agency, service provider, vender, or operator.  EO professionals have a variety of titles, i.e. the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) EO Officer, Title VI Coordinator, ADA Coordinator, Title IX Coordinator, and so on.

This paper directs EO professionals in federally-assisted programs and activities to some important issues that arise in discrimination complaint investigations.  Developing policies and procedures addressing these issues in advance of receiving a discrimination complaint will yield significant time savings down the road.

√       Where do you fit in the overall process?

Make sure you know the source(s) of potential discrimination complaints, which may be filed with you.  For federally-assisted programs, beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of the aid, training, benefits, and services you offer may file discrimination complaints.  For that reason, you’ll need to know what federally-assisted services, aid, training, and benefits your agency, organization, or company offers.

Is there a Web site where complaint forms and other information may be found?  Once you render a decision on a complaint, and one of the parties disagrees with your decision, what are the party’s rights?

√       How to you handle issues of representation?

What are the policies and procedures related to representation of a party to a discrimination complaint?  Is a lay representative or attorney representative allowed?  If so, at what point in the process may the representative enter an appearance?  How much involvement may the representative have with non-party witnesses?  What do you do if a complainant asks for legal representation?  For example, do you have contact information for entities like the local bar association or legal aid services available?

√       How do you process a discrimination complaint involving a minor?

This issue most often arises in the context of federally-assisted educational, apprenticeship, and/or training programs involving high school age or early college age students.  For example, in a Job Corps program, discrimination complaints may arise between a teacher or school official and a minor student, between two students, or any number of other variations.  In your jurisdiction, what is the age of a minor?  Can a minor file a discrimination complaint, or must a parent or legal guardian sign the complaint also?  How do you handle confidentiality and privacy of the minor?  How do you handle witnesses who are minors? What happens to the complaint if a parent or guardian will not sign with the minor?

√       How do you process anonymous complaints?

Anonymous complaints present special concerns to the EO professional.  Possibly the complainant is afraid of retaliation, and seeks to protect his/her identity.  On the other hand, a complainant may harbor a grudge against the respondent, and seek to harass the respondent by invoking a discrimination complaint investigation.  Either way, you should know the policies and procedures of your agency, company, or organization for handling these complaints.  Do you proceed with the investigation, or do you conduct monitoring or a compliance review?

√       What if a complaint should be directed to another agency?

When you receive a complaint, but find another agency or entity has jurisdiction to investigate it (such as the EEOC), what is the procedure for referring the complaint?  Will you (1) forward the complaint directly to the other entity and notify the complainant, (2) return the complaint to the complainant with instructions to file with another entity, or (3) handle the complaint another way?

√       How do you handle issues of privacy and confidentiality?

We covered these issues in conjunction with handling complaints involving minors, but issues of privacy and confidentiality are present in every discrimination complaint investigation.  What are the policies pertaining to privacy and confidentiality?  Who has access to the investigative file?  If you get a request for documents from the file from a non-party, what do you do?  If a party wants copies of all witness statements, do you provide those?  How do you handle a complainant’s medical information that may be the investigative file?  If a party or non-party wants your investigative notes, do you provide those?  If you get advice from your EO leadership or legal staff and a party or non-party requests that information, do you provide it?  What do you do with personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and the like? And, finally, what are your policies and procedures for collecting, using, storing, and disclosing medical information?

√       What if the complainant dies or cannot be located?

You receive a discrimination complaint, and then learn the complainant died, or you cannot make contact with the complainant.  What do you do with the complaint?  Does it make a difference if the complainant filed the complaint alone, or as part of a class action?

√       How do you handle a complainant’s request to withdraw a complaint?

If a complainant seeks to withdraw his or her discrimination complaint, what do you do?  What are the complainant’s rights should s/he choose to re-file the complaint?

√       What are your procedures for reducing witness statements to writing?

Once you have completed interviews of the parties to a complaint as well as any witnesses, what is the procedure for reducing the statements of the parties and witnesses to writing?  Who writes the statements?  Do the statements need to be signed?  Must they be notarized?  What if an interviewee is limited English proficient, or has a disability and needs auxiliary aids and services during the discrimination complaint investigation process?

√       What is the policy on harassment and is it publicized?

You must understand the harassment policies of your agency, company, or organization.  Make sure the policies are well-known at all levels or your agency, organization, or company, and are well-known to the members of the public who come to you for aid, services, training, or benefits.  Conduct periodic training to minimize the potential for the filing of a harassment-based discrimination complaint.  Convey a “no tolerance” position on the subject.  The more comprehensive and publicized your harassment policies are, the less likely you will face this type of complaint.

Keep in mind that engaging in harassment or hostile environment on any prohibited basis (i.e. race, color, national origin, and so on), not just sexual harassment, constitutes discrimination in violation of federal civil rights laws.

√       What are your policies for handling accommodation and modification requests?

Knowing the policies for handling disability-based and religious-based requests for accommodation or modification is central to effectively and successfully resolving these issues.  Staff must be trained regularly on these policies, and how to implement them from the moment a beneficiary or potential beneficiary makes that initial request.  Reasonable accommodation and modification processes require engaging in a highly interactive dialogue where both sides explore possible accommodations or modifications. Having a well-trained staff goes far in alleviating failure to accommodate complaints.

√       How do you serve persons who are limited English proficient (LEP)?

Our communities benefit from the skills, knowledge, and experiences of increasingly diverse peoples, some of whom are not fluent in English.  In federally-assisted programs and activities, we must afford LEP persons meaningful access to all aid, training, benefits, or services for which they meet the essential eligibility requirements.

What are the procedures you have in place for serving LEP persons in your community?  What if you receive an LEP person who does not speak any of the languages spoken by a majority of the population in your community?  What are the resources available to you at the federal, state, and local levels for assisting LEP persons?  Is your staff trained to serve LEP persons from the moment they come through your doors?

√       What are the policies for using mediation to resolve disputes?

Mediation can be useful in resolving discrimination complaints, particularly when it occurs early in the process.  Mediation is an integral component of resolving workplace discrimination complaints.  And, often, issues involving denial of access to aid, training, benefits, or services in federally-assisted programs and activities are suitable for mediation.  Do you have policies and procedures in place for use of mediation?  What resources are available to you (such as a list of available mediators)?

√       Are there instances where you will expedite consideration of  a complaint?

What are your policies and procedures for expedited handling of a discrimination complaint?  For example, if a complainant alleges that s/he was retaliated against because of a prior complaint filed, is there a policy to give the retaliation complaint expedited treatment?

√       Is the complainant required to exhaust administrative remedies?

Do you have policies and procedures in place related to exhaustion of remedies?  If so, what are the types of complaints covered by these policies and procedures?  For example, before you accept a discrimination complaint pertaining to the denial of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, will you require that the complainant exhaust the UI appeals process?

√       What are the policies for audio and/or video recordings of interviews?

During your interviews of witnesses, you may seek to record the interviews by means of audio and/or video equipment.  Are recorded interviews permissible or prohibited in your state or locality?  Do you need permission from the interviewee?  Will you summarize the interview in a written statement?  What procedure will you follow to allow the interviewee to review any written statement for purposes of ensuring accuracy and completeness?  Does the interviewee need to sign the statement?

About Seena Foster

Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Partner of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations.  To that end, she offers one hour webinars, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, assistance developing policies and procedures, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination.  The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally-funded and federally-assisted programs and activities.  Her book, Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination, has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource.   Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors.  You may contact her through www.titleviconsulting.com.

OFCCP Updates its Disability and Veterans Community Resources Database for Contractors

Friday, April 4th, 2014

On April 4, 2014, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) added 24 new resources to its Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory. This database was launched in March 2014 to help contractors find qualified workers with disabilities and veterans, and to assist contractors with establishing relationships with national organizations and local community groups that have access to these workers.

Contractors, as well as others, can visit OFCCP’s updated Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory on the OFCCP Web site at http://www.dol-esa.gov/errd/resources.html. OFCCP will add more resources to this database in the coming weeks.

Office of Disability Employment Policy Newsletter (April 4, 2014)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

For more information on any of the following articles, go to www.dol.gov/odep.

The Changing Workforce – Assistant Secretary Martinez Addresses DMEC Conference

Speaking to an audience of disability management professionals, insurance vendors and HR practitioners at the Disability Management Employer Coalition’s FMLA/ADAAA Employer Compliance Conference in Washington, DC on April 1, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathy Martinez discussed disability employment and our rapidly “graying” workforce. The conference also highlighted workplace flexibility and return-to-work programs as exemplary practices that benefit workers and employers alike.

Shelly Saves the Future – The Importance of Individualized Learning Plans

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has created an info-comic that illustrates the benefits of having an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) for high school students like Shelly, the star of the comic. ILPs are tools that help students explore their strengths and interests, learn how their interests are related to career options, and connect what they do in high school with college, job and career goals. In an April 2 posting on the Department of Labor’s blog site, Maria Town, policy adviser in ODEP, introduces Shelly’s story of career development.

Opening the Doors of Small Business to People with Disabilities: Moving Up the Ramp – Webinar – April 11, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EDT

This webinar, presented by the Employer Assistance and Resource Network, will help small businesses learn about employing people with disabilities. Topics include the lower than anticipated costs of workers’ compensation, health care and accommodations; the benefits of employing people with disabilities, including retention, productivity, attendance, safety, team performance and financial incentives; and best practices and employment strategies. The webinar will take place April 11, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EDT.

LEAD Center Publishes Its Quarterly “LEAD On!” E-Newsletter

LEAD On!, the LEAD Center’s quarterly e-newsletter, highlights news and innovations in employment, policy and economic advancement for adults with disabilities. The current edition features stories on the new LEAD Center/National Council for Independent Living community of practice to promote employment and economic advancement; the recently released LEAD Center Policy Roundtable report; the new Section 503 regulations that took effect March 24, and more.

What’s New with Disability.gov?

Disability.gov, the federal government website for information on disability programs and services nationwide, now offers nine “Guides to Information” to help users quickly find a variety of resources on a single topic. The subjects covered include employment, federal government grants, self-employment, housing, transportation and other topics.

Bureau of Labor Statistics Releases Youth Employment Rate Numbers for March 2014

Employment data for youth with and without disabilities is obtained from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Office of Disability Employment Policy Newsletter (March 28, 2014)

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

In Pursuit of Inclusive Technology — Assistant Secretary Martinez at CSUN Conference

Hundreds of attendees at the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference sponsored annually by California State University of Northridge (CSUN) gathered last week to explore the vital importance of ensuring technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy Kathy Martinez delivered the event’s keynote address on March 20, during which she talked about the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts to promote the development and adoption of accessible workplace technology by America’s employers, as well as the government’s use of new technologies to advance collaborative policymaking and outreach. “While I’ve certainly experienced the frustration of workplace technology that is not accessible,” said Martinez, “I’ve also seen the promise of universally designed technology that can empower all of us to excel and fully participate — at work, and in life.”

National Online Conversation for Change on Social Media Accessibility Open through April 4

Through April 4, members of the public are invited to participate in a national online dialogue, “Advancing Accessibility and Inclusion in Social Media — The User Experience,” to examine the accessibility barriers of social media tools faced by individuals with disabilities, including job seekers and workers. Co-hosted by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the National Council on Disability (NCD), this event aims to explore the value of social media in the lives of people with disabilities, particularly around work, and to identify accessibility issues and creative approaches to making social media tools more accessible and usable for everyone. The information gathered from this dialogue will then help NCD and ODEP further collaborate with the social media industry to implement solutions and improve the accessibility of these online tools. The dialogue is the first in a series of three social media accessibility online events to take place over the next three months.

Online Dialogue to Help Shape the 2014 NDEAM Theme Closes March 31

The national online dialogue to share ideas for this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme is coming to a close on March 31. There is still time to submit your suggestions for a theme that reminds everyone of the valuable skills and talents that people with disabilities bring to the workplace. Don’t miss your chance to contribute to the conversation!

WRP.jobs Online Job Board Open to Private Sector Employers

Private sector employers can now use WRP.jobs, a free online job board, to find pre-screened college students and recent graduates with disabilities looking for internships and permanent positions through the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP). WRP candidates represent all majors and include graduate and law students, as well as veterans. The WRP is a government-wide program co-sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Labor to increase employment of people with disabilities in the federal workforce. Through WRP.jobs, interested non-federal employers can post permanent and temporary positions and WRP students can search and apply for these positions using employers’ standard application processes. WRP.jobs is a pilot project developed through a collaboration between the Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN), the organization that administers the WRP program for non-federal employers, and DirectEmployers, a non-profit consortium of global employers.

OFCCP Launches New Outreach and Recruitment Database for Contractors

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) recently launched a database to help contractors find qualified workers with disabilities and veterans, and to assist contractors with establishing relationships with national organizations and local community groups that have access to these workers. Contractors, as well as others, can visit OFCCP’s Disability and Veterans Community Resources Directory on the OFCCP website. This new resource supplements the agency’s existing Employment Resources Referral Directory.

LEAD Center Releases March Policy Update — Employment, Health Care and Disability

The March 2014 issue of the LEAD Center’s Policy Update — Employment, Health Care and Disability is now available. This monthly update, created in collaboration with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, provides policymakers, disability service professionals, individuals with disabilities and their families with information about relevant policy developments regarding Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and related topics, with a focus on improving employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. The March edition features stories on the President’s proposed 2015 budget, a recent webinar series hosted by ODEP, CMS and the LEAD Center, states considering private health coverage to low-income adults, a study on the benefits of Medicaid expansion for uninsured people with mental illness and Pennsylvania’s proposed Medicaid expansion.

Fall White House Internship Program — Applications Due April 13

The White House Internship Program provides a unique opportunity to gain valuable professional experience and build leadership skills. This hands-on program is designed to mentor and cultivate today’s young leaders, strengthen their understanding of the Executive Office and prepare them for future public service opportunities. The White House Internship Program’s mission is to make the “People’s House” accessible to future leaders from around the nation. The application for the Fall 2014 White House Internship Program is now open and the deadline is April 13, 2014.

Immigration-Related Unfair Labor Practices: New Anti-Discrimination Posters in Multiple Languages from the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

OSC is pleased to announce that its anti-discrimination poster is now available in additional languages. OSC has published translations of its poster in Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. These translations are available on OSC’s website located on the Worker Information page at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/osc/htm/worker.php and the Employer Information page at: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/osc/htm/employer.php.

OFCCP Posts VEVRAA Benchmark Database and User Instructions

Friday, March 21st, 2014

OFCCP posted the Benchmark Database required by the new regulations implementing the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA). Federal contractors use the VEVRAA Benchmark Database when establishing a hiring benchmark for protected veterans as required by 41 CFR 60-300.45 of the new regulations. The database includes the annual national percentage of veterans in the civilian labor force for contractors that choose to use this number as their benchmark. It also includes data on the percentage of veterans in the labor force in each State and the number of veterans who participate in each State’s employment service, for use by those contractors choosing to develop an individualized benchmark.

To help contractors use this database, OFCCP provides detailed user instructions and examples illustrating how a contractor could use the database to set an individualized VEVRAA benchmark.

You can access the VEVRAA Benchmark Database through OFCCP’s Web site at http://www.dol-esa.gov/errd/VEVRAA.jsp.

Civil Rights News From Secretary Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education

Friday, March 21st, 2014

Friend,

Equity – the push to ensure strong educational opportunity for every student – drives everything we do at the U.S. Department of Education, and particularly in the Office for Civil Rights. From preschool enrollment to college attendance and completion, our office’s work is grounded in the belief that all students, regardless of race, gender, disability, or age, need a high-quality education to be successful.

Yet despite the gains we’ve made as a country, too many students are not receiving the education they deserve, and it is our collective duty to change that. Data is crucial to this work and helps us understand the extent of educational inequity throughout the U.S. and make informed decisions for action.

Since 1968, the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), formerly the Elementary and Secondary School Survey, has collected data on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. Our office uses this data to focus our equity efforts and monitor the effectiveness of our programs. Earlier today we released new data from the 2011-12 collection, and for the first time since 2000, we collected data from every public school in the nation. This newest collection also includes data on preschool suspensions and expulsions for the first time as well.

Below are five striking new facts from the 2011-12 CRDC collection:

Access to preschool is not a reality for much of the country. About 40 percent of public school districts do not offer preschool, and where it is available, it is mostly part-day only. Of the school districts that operate public preschool programs, barely half are available to all students within the district.

Suspension of preschool children. Black students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of preschool students suspended once, and 48 percent of the preschool students suspended more than once.

Access to courses necessary for college is inequitably distributed. Eighty-one percent of Asian-American high school students and 71 percent of white high school students attend high schools where the full range of math and science courses are offered (Algebra I, geometry, Algebra II, calculus, biology, chemistry, physics). However, fewer than half of American Indian and Native-Alaskan high school students have access to the full range of math and science courses in their high schools. Black students (57 percent), Latino students (67 percent), students with disabilities (63 percent), and English learner students (65 percent) also have diminished access to the full range of courses.

Access to college counselors is uneven. Nationwide, one in five high schools lacks a school counselor.

Disparities in high school retention. Twelve percent of black students are retained in grade nine – about double the rate that all students are retained (six percent). Additionally, students with disabilities served by IDEA and English learners make up 12 percent and five percent of high school enrollment, respectively, but 19 percent and 11 percent of students held back or retained a year, respectively.

Learn more about the CRDC at ocrdata.ed.gov.