CDC Employees Demand Racism Be Labeled A Health Crisis

By Jon Steingart
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Law360 (July 13, 2020, 11:00 PM EDT) -- A group of employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are demanding the agency reform a culture that they say has marginalized Black employees for years, sending Director Robert Redfield a letter that calls for specific changes in the workplace.

The letter, obtained by Law360 on Monday, begins by citing recent examples of "the long-festering disease of racial discrimination and oppression in the United States." It cites the disproportionate harm that African-Americans are experiencing from the novel coronavirus, and notes the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. Senior leaders' messages to employees in recent weeks that pledge solidarity with calls for racial justice are encouraging, but "ring hollow" in light of the problems Black CDC employees face, according to the letter.

The letter, which is dated June 30, calls out three specific examples of barriers holding back Black employees at the agency: lack of diversity in senior leadership positions, a "pernicious" network of longtime employees who suppress Black advancement, and a hostile culture where "racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization" run rampant. It lists seven specific moves that the CDC should take and demands a response within seven days.

The first step the agency should take is to declare racism a public health crisis, the letter says. It calls for a dedicated CDC center that can correct its effects across diseases and disciplines, as well as acknowledgment that scientific and programmatic activities should consider and center Black people and systemic racism in their approach.

Other steps address ways to elevate Black employees, dismantle barriers to advancement, make the backlog of equal employment opportunity complaints a priority, and enhance on-the-job training and education for all staff.

Taking these steps can go a long way not just to improve working conditions for employees at the agency, but to improve the quality of the science and its ability to help more people, Madeline Sutton, a physician who worked at the CDC for almost 22 years and supports the letter, told Law360.

"When you have scientists and researchers who tend to look like or can reflect or provide a different context to what may be going on in particular communities, the way that research questions are developed and asked are very different, and they're stronger," she said.

She suggested reframing how we think about health research to look beyond data measurements like someone's temperature and blood pressure. Health includes broader social contexts such as the day-to-day activities and communities in which people live their lives, and racial disparities in health and wellness should be understood to be connected to racial disparities in transportation, housing and jobs, she said.

"When you think more broadly in terms of wellness instead of diseases, wellness involves many of the things that we probably don't think about as much when we're just looking at the raw scientific data, but it very much will involve those contextual issues," she said. "Many times, depending on the persons or communities that you're trying to enroll in your studies, your study will resonate more if the persons that you're approaching feel that you've taken the time to really give some thought and consideration to things that are going on outside of their health, to some of their social contexts."

The steps outlined in the letter are vital to making sure CDC employees are able to improve their working conditions and do better work that will have broad impact, Dionne Mason, acting president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2883, told Law360. Her union represents CDC employees and supports the letter.

"We need action," Mason said, adding that in the past, the agency has undertaken superficial measures "to give the impression that we have fairness at CDC."

"For Afro-Americans at CDC, this has been ongoing for years and the agency's always just providing certain factors or certain things that will provide some comfort, but they never follow through on anything," Mason said.

Mason declined to address how the agency responded to the letter. Information about the number of employees who signed the letter was not immediately available, and organizers continue to gather signatures, even though it has already been sent to CDC leadership.

A CDC statement emailed to Law360 by Bert Kelly, an agency representative, said Director Redfield received the letter and responded.

"CDC is committed to fostering a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment in which staff can openly share their concerns with agency leadership," the statement said.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the local union. The error has been corrected.

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