USDA Releases Final Rule to Expand Nondiscriminatory Protections
July 16, 2014
On Wednesday, July 16, 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its final rule, “Nondiscrimination in Programs or Activities Conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture.” It follows the proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on December 27, 2013 for public comment. The USDA regulation on nondiscrimination was last revised in 1999.
The final rule clarifies the roles and responsibilities of USDA’s Office of the Assistance Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) and USDA agencies in enforcing nondiscrimination in programs or activities conducted by the Department. The regulation also strengthens USDA’s civil rights compliance and complaint processing activities to better protect the rights of USDA customers. It outlines three specific changes to current nondiscrimination activities:
- Data Collection, Maintenance, and Compilation – The final rule requires each USDA agency, for civil rights compliance purposes, to collect, maintain, and annually compile data on the race, ethnicity, and gender of all applicants and participants of USDA programs and activities. The rule standardizes the recordkeeping requirement across the Department to all programs that deliver benefits to the public. Collecting this data enables USDA to track application and participation rates for socially disadvantaged applicants and participants.
- Early Resolution of Customer Complaints – The rule also requires that OASCR offer Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services to encourage the early resolution of customer complaints. Offering ADR will help facilitate complaint resolution while also shortening resolution time. USDA anticipates that this change will reduce costs associated with complaint processing while simultaneously improving customer experience with the Department.
- Added Protection for Political Beliefs and Gender Identity – Finally, USDA is amending the regulation to add protection from discrimination with respect to political beliefs and gender identity. Gender identity includes how USDA program customers act, dress, perceive themselves, or otherwise express their gender. The change allows USDA customers who believe that they have been discriminated against on the basis of political beliefs or gender activity to now take advantage of USDA’s existing mechanisms to file an administrative complaint and receive a response.
USDA anticipates that the expanded data collection will help provide information regarding customers who are and who are not receiving USDA benefits, improve program design, and ultimately reduce the number of discrimination complaints filed against USDA. The final rule covers all programs and activities conducted by USDA, but does not cover those for which funds are provided through a third party, such as state or municipal government, university, financial institution, or other intermediary organization.
The final rule is effective immediately and available in the Federal Register here.
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