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'A Difference In Treatment': Data Show Continued Racial Disparities In State Employee Turnover, Pay

A graphic with a laptop screen with nine squares and a person with different colored hair and skin in each
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Data shows little progress over the past five years in salary and turnover inequities for employees of color versus white employees for the state of Vermont.

Efforts to address implicit bias and systemic racism in state government have done little to reduce racial disparities in turnover and pay in the state workforce.

Five years ago, the Vermont Department of Human Resources published a report that revealed stark racial disparities in the government workforce: Employees of color were more than twice as likely to leave their government jobs, and BIPOC workers were paid about 10%  less on average than their white colleagues.

Those findings helped spur a laundry list of initiatives to address bias and racism in state government.

But according to data published last month, the turnover rate for employees of color last year was still nearly double what it was for white workers. And BIPOC employees continue to make about 10%  less than their white counterparts.

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“It definitely tells us that there is a difference in treatment,” said Bor Yang, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

With nearly 8,000 workers on its payroll, state government is one of the largest employers in Vermont. And the racial and ethnic makeup of its workforce about mirrors census data for the broader Vermont population.

Employees of color, however, appear to be having a far difference experience than their white colleagues.

“There’s problems in terms of, different terms and conditions that are being set for employees of color versus employees who are white, and also potentially that there could be a hostile environment for employees as well,” Yang said.

Yang’s office has jurisdiction over employment-related discrimination complaints filed by state workers. She said the four complaints the commission substantiated last year are emblematic of broader problems in state workspaces.

“And they all involved a hostile work environment on the basis of race and color, and also disparate treatment, different terms and conditions that were set in the workplace because of race,” Yang said.

"What's happening in the communities, the attitudes people have in the communities and the way that they interact in the communities is going to show itself in the workplace." — Xusana Davis, Executive Director of Racial Equity

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP, said employers’ inability to retain workers of color in Vermont isn’t limited to state government.

“What I think … just personally is that there is an atmosphere probably of cultural exclusion, feelings of isolation, feelings of being unseen and unheard,” Gillom said.

Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP.
Credit Courtesy
Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP.

He said it’s easy enough to diagnose the cause of those feelings.

“It really is just unconscious bias, and that is perpetuated by systemic white supremacy,” Gillom said. “And really it’s that atmosphere that leads a lot of times, in my opinion, to wanting to exit from a place that would otherwise on paper seem like a good place to be.”

Stephanie Seguino, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont, said inequities in the workplace are revealing themselves in broader economic data.

Per capita income for Black Vermonters is less than $19,000 a year, according to data analyzed by Seguino, about half what it is for white residents. And nearly 25% of Black Vermonters live below the federal poverty line, more than double the poverty rate of white people.

“Marginalized groups are excluded from the prized jobs with good benefits and good pay,” Seguino said. “We see that [in the state workforce], we see it in the Vermont economy as well.”

Seguino says those disparities are not a product of differences in education. Black Vermonters, for instance, are more likely than white Vermonters to have a bachelor’s degree.

“That would be one justifiable explanation, if you will, is if people don’t have the skills for the higher-wage jobs,” Seguino said. “But the data are not telling us that. They’re telling us that actually, that education cannot explain these disparities.”

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Seguino said the disparities are more likely explained by stereotypes.

“Negative stereotypes [of people of color], or overly positive stereotypes of white applicants,” Seguino said.

While the state of Vermont has sought to diversify its workforce in recent years, Gillom said recruitment efforts alone aren’t going to narrow the gap in racial disparities.

“And so you just kind of bring in these Black and Brown people, and they have no way to thrive, they have no way to come into the job and feel like they’re part of the team,” Gillom said.

Gillom said state government, and other business organizations in Vermont, need to take stock of the ways in which white culture dominates their workplace, and then figure out how they’re going to adapt that culture in ways that empower workers of color who join the ranks.

“It’s like … having guests come. I mean, that might be the best example,” Gillom said. “You clean your house. You prepare. It’s one of things where, it’s incumbent on them to really go in and do the work.”

Xusana Davis, smiling, looks off camera
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR File
Xusana Davis, Vermont's Executive Director of Racial Equity.

Xusana Davis, executive director of racial equity for the Scott administration, said the climate workers of color encounter when they leave work for the day is as important as the one they experience in the office.

“What’s happening in the communities, the attitudes people have in the communities and the way that they interact in the communities is going to show itself in the workplace,” Davis said.

That racial disparities in turnover and pay in state government haven’t changed much over the past five years says something, according to Seguino.

“What it says to me is that our institutions, whether it is private sector firms or the public sector, have not prioritized closing this gap,” she said.

And she said that gap won’t close until they do.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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