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Commissioners angry over work force makeup at zoo and botanical garden

Friday, January 06, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Minority Cook County commissioners are angry over statistics released Thursday showing few minorities working at the county-supported Chicago Botanical Gardens and Brookfield Zoo.

The numbers, as low as 4 percent in some cases, prompted Commissioner Roberto Maldonado to pledge the introduction of an affirmative action ordinance that would mandate minority hiring at those agencies, as well as the forest preserve and county governments themselves.

"These numbers are pathetic," said Maldonado (D-Chicago). "They give me the constant response that ... they cannot find the candidates. I don't buy that."

Minorities make up 26 percent of the Botanical Gardens' 452 employees. Seventeen employees, or 4 percent, are black. Of the 92 Hispanic workers, nearly all are unskilled laborers and most are season employees.

The Brookfield Zoo has a work force that's 25 percent minority.

Cook County's population is 52 percent minority.

Both institutions sit on land owned by the county forest preserve district and are supported, in part, with tax money the district collects. But both are run by independent non-profit corporations that don't answer to the county board.

That left Maldonado and Commissioner Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago) frustrated with the lack of progress on minority hiring, which they've pushed for years. They asked County Board President John Stroger to do something.

"We have to find a way to make this work," Steele said.

Stroger told commissioners there was little he could do to force the institutions to make changes.

"I'm not going to perform a miracle," Stroger said.

Both organizations said they recognize they need to increase diversity and have been working on the problem over the past two years.

Botanical Garden spokeswoman Sue Markgraf said transportation is the garden's biggest obstacle to minority hiring. It lies on the northern edge of the county in a predominantly white area not well serviced by public transportation.

"If we were in the city or (near) an el line, I know this wouldn't even be a conversation," Markgraf said. "There's a number of things ongoing that we're working on to address the transpiration issue."

Maldonado and Steele both dismissed that argument.

"Latinos today, if you give them an opportunity to work, people will go to where the place of employment is," Maldonado said. "If you're not welcome, or it's perceived that you're not welcome, then you're not even going to try."

Markgraf said the garden also finds it difficult to find minority applicants who have the advanced training needed for many of the garden's jobs.

Zoo president Stuart Strahl cited a similar problem.

"A lot of our laborers ... these are areas largely to do with animal care and well being and all of them require a higher degree," Strahl said. "This is an issue nationwide for zoos."

The zoo runs several programs designed to boost education, including an internship program for high school students that can lead to college scholarships and a zoo job upon graduation.

Steele and Maldonado were also not happy with the minority employment at the forest preserves, which Stroger does control. The district work force is 38 percent minority, less than the 40 percent the county demands from companies that contract with it.

Stroger said he's hired many black managers but won't fire white employees, many of whom who stick with the district for decades, just to make room for minorities.

Maldonado said minority hiring needed to be improved throughout the county.

The West Side commissioner objected in May when a report showed minorities made up less than 40 percent in several county offices. He said he has delayed his plans for an affirmative action ordinance because a report on hiring practices he was promised months ago has not been completed.

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