U.S. Senator Mark Pryor today introduced legislation to ensure the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) swiftly responds to civil rights complaints in regard to program delivery and the treatment of its employees.
Pryor said more than a dozen Arkansas farmers who have filed discrimination claims with the USDA are not getting the immediate attention or recourse they deserve. The agency's swift action is necessary because farmers often apply for USDA-backed loans or other assistance to avoid bankruptcy. In past Administrations, the USDA has delayed action on civil rights cases in order to surpass the statute of limitations.
During a Senate appropriations hearing last month, Pryor expressed concern about the time lapse with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and they are working to address the 16 Arkansas cases in which farmers have been waiting over a year for a response. In addition, Pryor introduced the Fair Claims Act, which requires the USDA to acknowledge to claimants whether it is considering or rejecting a civil rights claim within 45 days. Once considering a claim, the USDA would be required to process the complaint within 270 days. The timeline for response on the complaint may be extended if a claimant has pursued the option of Alternative Dispute Resolution with USDA.
"USDA has historically had a terrible track record in handling discrimination claims, and it really should have very little leg room when it comes to current and future cases," Pryor said. "My legislation simply sets a mandatory deadline, which provides our farmers with more certainty when problems do arise."
"I commend Senator Pryor for such an outstanding piece of legislation. This is a true demonstration of commitment for justice, within our justice system. As we all know justice delayed is justice denied," said Dr. Calvin King, Sr. of the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Company.
Pryor did credit the USDA for improvements in its overall civil rights actions. Since Secretary Vilsack took office in 2009, the average turn around for a decision on a civil rights complaint has decreased from an average of 2-3 years to 6-8 months. Civil rights complaints in general have also dropped dramatically.