Already facing multi-million-dollar lawsuits for management scandals and dealing with a data breach that has impacted close to 2,000 people across the country, the Town of Purcellville this week came under fire for the lack of diversity in its workforce.
On Monday, Phillip Thompson, the former president of the Loudoun County NAACP and current president of Diverse Engagement—a company that focuses on diversity and economic development issues in the private and public sectors in Loudoun and across Virginia—emailed Town Manager David Mekarski and the Town Council to request information on the town’s diversity programs, any special efforts or programs it uses to diversify its workforce and the latest workforce information relating to race or national origin.
Thompson wrote that it was his understanding that the town had no black staff members, following the death of Kevin Tally, a 22-year town employee who was stuck by a car in front of this home in October.
He offered to help the town step up its minority hiring.
“African Americans have a long history in Purcellville. With Loudoun County being as diverse as it is, with so many talented individuals of all races and National origins living in or near Purcellville, it seems rather astounding that the Town would lack real diversity in its workforce in 2019,” Thompson wrote.
According to Human Resources Director Sharon Rauch, the town employs at least one staff member who could be categorized as African American but has chosen not to self-identify as such. Rauch said the town invites its staffers each year to identify with a race, but that it can’t force them to do so. Rauch said the town also employs staffers who self-identify as Asian and Hispanic.
In all, 89 people work for the Town of Purcellville, where the residential population is a little less than 7 percent black and close to 86 percent white, according to the most recent United States Census Bureau American Community Survey.
When asked whether the town employs any programs to diversify the workforce, Mekarski acknowledged the town lags behind other jurisdictions in its total minority representation, but noted it also lags behind in its compensation schedule—something that he said affects recruiting across all races and backgrounds. “That has to be considered,” he said.
To achieve more diverse hiring, Rauch said her department would be asking the Town Council to consider dedicating funds in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget for her team to advertise job postings on more diverse websites, like military.com and diversity.com. She said the town currently advertises job listings on indeed.com and on the town website.
While she said it’s too early to speculate how much she’ll be asking for, Rauch said that on average, those types of employment websites charge anywhere from $300 to $500 per month for their services.
Mekarski said his team is setting up a meeting with Thompson in the next few weeks to gather his ideas on how the town can expand its recruitment efforts. “We are certainly excited about talking to him and getting his ideas,” he said.
Mekarski said Thompson’s email was a surprise to him and that because the town grew from about 3,000 residents to about 10,000 in a little more than a decade, there wasn’t enough time for the town government to grow and evolve at the same rate as the residential population.
Mekarski said that when he arrived in the town in April 2018, it didn’t even have an HR director—a position to which Mekarski eventually elevated Rauch. He said in the past year and a half, he also worked to include budget funding for an HR analyst, a position Tassea Smith now holds. “Essentially we’re playing catchup,” he said.
Mekarski said Purcellville isn’t alone in its struggle to diversify its workforce. He noted the county government’s decision to employ a full-time staff member dedicated to diversity recruitment. He said that while the town would like to do the same, it’s still too understaffed to make that happen.
“We still have much work to do—we’re committed to doing it,” Mekarski said.
From Mekarski’s point-of-view, the task ahead is one he said he’s prepared to handle. He pointed to his past experience working as the village administrator of Olympia Fields, IL—a community comprised of 74 percent African Americans, according to the Census. Mekarski said his years of work there had him fighting for diversity and inclusion, breaking down racial barriers and advocating for civil rights.
He said that community faced challenges attracting class A retail businesses because of their negative views of the village’s demographics.
Mekarski said he even received more than $250,000 from the federal government for a regional study on the economic impact of unconscious racism. He said he “tried to wake America up to the pervasive and insidious form of implicit bias and how it affects the economic climate.”
Aside from now scrutinizing Purcellville’s staffing diversity, NAACP leaders and other activists have been successful pushing to address equity concerns—prompting the creation of a Diversity Committee for Loudoun County Public Schools, a state Attorney General’s Office investigation into allegations of discriminatory admissions practices at the Academies of Loudoun, and new requirements to protect African American burial grounds.