February 5, 2019

Worcester seeks to diversify city workforce

Photo/Grant Welker
A food and drink event at the Worcester Common brought visitors outside City Hall. The city is looking to match its workforce to its population.

When a volunteer board reviewed Worcester's affirmative action plan, the members were stunned by how dated the 1996 document was. For one thing, all the pronouns were "he" or "his."

Times have changed, and the city's new policy aims to match the diversity of Worcester employees to that of its 186,000 residents.

"We all feel that this was the right thing to do," AiVi Nguyen, a Worcester resident and lawyer at Bowditch & Dewey who serves as acting vice chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, said of a years-long process to update the city's policies on hiring a diverse workforce.

Today, the gap is wide. Through a voluntary self-reporting process, 16 percent of city employees say they are in a protected group — that is, they are female, an ethnic minority, gay, handicapped, veterans, or face other potential challenges in being hired.

According to U.S. Census data, 69 percent of Worcester residents are white, 21 percent are Hispanic, 13 percent are black and 7 percent are Asian. More than 7,000 are veterans.

"The gap is wide enough that we had to have a policy in place," said Patrick Hare, the committee's acting chair, who works as a staff assistant in the president's office at Worcester State University.

The committee is scheduled to present the new city plan to the City Council on Tuesday night.

The new plan, which was requested by City Manager Edward Augustus, gives the city's chief diversity officer, Suja Chacko, authority to oversee each hiring process the city undertakes. That oversight begins with posting a job opening and continues through reviewing all resumes and cover letters and the interview process.

The goal, Chacko said, is to make sure subconscious biases don't preclude a qualified minority from getting a job. Nepotism or cronyism that can be persistent problems in hiring are big targets.

"We're working to have eyes on every step of the way," said Chacko, who has overseen diversity efforts for the city for nearly a year.

Chacko will report to the Diversity & Inclusion Committee annually, and she has strong authority to get involved in hiring processes as someone who reports directly to Augustus. There won't be any requirements of hitting certain percentages of minority hires, Chacko said, emphasizing the best candidates should still be hired for any opening.

Eventually matching the city's workforce with its diverse population is still the North Star that Chacko said she and the committee are aiming for.

The newly reborn diversity efforts extend past hiring to include outreach and education. Events are planned for Black History Month this month and International Women's Day next month, for example. A recent Police Department job fair brought a wide range of potential hires Hare said likely wouldn't have applied for jobs otherwise because they weren't sure how to apply for those jobs.

"The people who showed up," Hare said of the event, with its diverse attendance, "looked like the city of Worcester."

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