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County commissioners rip minority hiring level

Friday, January 06, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Cook County commissioners are demanding improvements in hiring at the Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Botanic Gardens and Forest Preserve District, saying minorities are "severely and pathetically under-represented" in the work- force.

A report released Thursday shows that while 52 percent of county residents are minorities, only 26 percent of the full-time workers at those publicly funded agencies are minorities.

The forest preserve is the most diverse among them, as 36 percent of all workers are minorities, while the zoo is the least diverse, with only 14 percent minority workers.

BY THE NUMBERS

A report presented to Cook County commissioners on Thursday details the racial makeup of full-time employees at the forest preserve district and the Chicago Botanic Gardens and Brookfield Zoo, which will receive $81 million from the district this year:

AGENCY
†WHITE
†BLACK
†HISPANIC

Forest Preserve
†64%
†29%
†6%

Brookfield Zoo
†86%
†3%
†11%

Botanical Gardens
†71%
†5%
†22%

Cook County population
†48%
†26%
†20%

SOURCE: COOK COUNTY FOREST PRESERVE DISTRICT

"They might claim to be equal-opportunity employers, but it's not working -- look at those numbers," said Commissioner Roberto Maldonado. "Obviously, there's discrimination, otherwise the numbers wouldn't be the way they are."

Working with schools

And while he said blacks and Hispanics are "severely and pathetically under-represented," Board President John Stroger said "you just can't fire anybody and just decide you're going to start with Hispanics and blacks."

"Getting minorities out to the Botanic Gardens is not the easiest thing to do with the type of salaries they pay," Stroger said.

Though he said he was "on the same wavelength," Stroger cut off Commissioner Bobbie Steele when she asked him to develop a strategy to hire more minority workers to combat the "troubling" numbers.

"I'm not going to work out a strategy," he snapped, saying he fills positions as they come open.

Stroger controls the Forest Preserve District and Brookfield Zoo, while the district gives $26 million to the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

Officials there said they're well aware of the figures and are working with local schools to draw more minorities toward science careers.

The zoo's problem is part of a broader one, as the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges said 91 percent of all current vet school students are white.

Botanic Gardens spokeswoman Sue Markgraf said they also struggle with achieving diversity among experts or even entry-level staff because of the limited number of students who are studying horticulture.

But Steele wants to see Stroger do more to demand change.

"He can't just say he improved diversity at the forest preserve and not hold the zoo or gardens accountable," she said. "Every year, we give huge donations to them, so I'd like to see a more accurate representation of Cook County there."



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