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DC-area county hides 'creepy and intrusive' DEI survey for employees: elected official

Yesli Vega, who lost closely watched House race in November, shares complaint from Prince William County employee about now-hidden survey.

Published: March 17, 2023 4:39pm

Updated: March 19, 2023 11:15pm

A suburban Virginia county near Washington, D.C. is retroactively hiding diversity, equity and inclusion-related materials from the public as a Republican elected official calls attention to its activities.

Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega, who lost a closely watched House race in November, posted the "creepy and intrusive" DEI survey sent to county employees after the Office of Equity and Inclusion removed the link she had shared with constituents Feb. 26.

The action by Vega, whose alternative budget proposal last year would have eliminated the office, prompted a county employee to reach out about their discomfort with the "patently offensive and extremely invasive" demographic questions that employees could not avoid.

The survey's first section, labeled "Demographic Assessment," starts with a mandatory question probing the employee's gender identity. 

The supervisor read the employee's email into the record at a Tuesday board meeting and posted the employee's communications agreeing to the release of a "sanitized version" of the complaint omitting identifying details.

"Time after time, this Orwellian office has exceeded our worst expectations," Vega's office said in a written statement Friday. "The sexual lives of our employees is none of their business" and shows "why this office must be terminated and the taxpayers of Prince William County refunded with the savings."

Equity and Inclusion Officer Maria Burgos told Vega in an email obtained by Potomac Local News that the Diversity Learning Solutions survey cost $78,000 and that Burgos removed it because Vega made it public. It will be reopened "once we can ensure this instrument of measure has not been compromised," said Burgos, whose yearly salary as of last summer was $162,000.

The survey isn't the first product involving Burgos to disappear from public view after Vega and others made a stink.

Vega said the Virginia Department of Education, which appointed Burgos to its "Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee" when she worked in county schools, unlisted its two-year-old video on culturally relevant teaching, in which Burgos cited texts on critical race theory in her presentation. Unlisting means the video can't be found through searches.

Vega's office said she obtained the removed survey through a Freedom of Information request. It was originally scheduled to close March 1.

The gender identity question offers 10 options, including a free-form box that asks respondents to "please specify" their unlisted identity, but no option to withhold. The mandatory "generation" and "race/ethnicity" questions include opt-out boxes, while the "sexual orientation" question is fully optional. 

The questionnaire doesn't clearly explain why demographic questions are mandatory, optional or include "prefer not to answer" boxes.

Vega told the employee who complained in their initial exchange that Burgos' office released a similar survey two years ago that "did not receive the feedback they hoped for" and "the topic was never brought up again."

The employee's complaint said the county sent an initial and "reminder email" to employees to fill out the survey, which prompted the employee to consider notifying the Board of Supervisors.

"Every peer with whom I have discussed the survey felt it crossed the line" and that the office "is a waste of County resources," as evidenced by the low response rate to this and the prior survey Vega mentioned, the email says.

Employee resistance has prompted some departments to "make their training sessions mandatory for select employees in order to bolster attendance and force participation," the employee claims.

The complainant eventually decided that reaching out to county leadership or their supervisor with their concerns "would most certainly have unintended negative consequences," including "efforts to destroy [my] reputation and livelihood."

The email says the employee endured "great sadness and anger" at the mandatory questions, noting the absence of a "prefer not" option for gender identity. Answering that question would violate the employee's beliefs that "one's biological sex" is immutable and exclude them from the rest of the survey.

The sexual orientation question, while optional, could get the employee sued, investigated and fired for sexual harassment if they sprung it on "a subordinate employee" in their office, the email says.

Spending "tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to have it done to me 'professionally'" is apparently "progressive" to county leadership, the employee says.

Noting the survey's other mandatory questions — military status, role, department, form of employment and tenure with the county — the employee fears the county could identify survey respondents by their answers.

The non-demographic questions are worded to keep employees from saying that individual DEI practices have no value, creating "only one possible appearance of employee opinions" and minimizing or eliminating dissent, the employee says. Only the final question — the organization's overall performance on inclusion — includes a free-form box.

Burgos' office and Prince William County media relations did not respond to queries about Vega's allegations and posted materials.

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