Worcester city leaders have released a list of planned actions in response to a recent independent equity audit that found city staff of color felt excluded, exploited and scared of complaining about racism among coworkers.

According to an update on the city’s website, acting City Manager Eric Batista will implement a variety of changes including holding town halls for city employees, beginning the process of hiring a new chief diversity officer, and making diversity and inclusion a more important part of the city’s strategic plan. In order to reduce employment barriers, the city also will scrap a requirement for drug tests and physicals for all candidates who have accepted job offers.

“Those are really good starts,” said Nelly Medina, a vice president of the Worcester branch of the NAACP. “However, we need not just words. We want to know exactly how they plan on going about each of those bullet points.”

The audit report released in September uncovered a “racially toxic” workplace at City Hall, where workers of color said they have limited opportunities to advance to higher positions and feel pressure to over perform their duties to meet managers’ expectations. The report included anonymous accounts from employees describing favoritism and nepotism among white staff while non-white employees “are simply ignored, disrespected.”

The findings angered some city councilors and community leaders who were already frustrated over the departure of the city’s third chief diversity officer since the position formed six years ago. In her resignation letter, Stephanie Williams, who is Black, said her skills would be more useful in an environment where she could have more impact. Batista has filled in as interim chief diversity officer since her departure in March.

In response to the audit, Batista promised to diversify the city’s workforce and ensure that all decision making among city leadership prioritizes equity.

“These employees paint a clear picture of what institutional racism, built over the course of the municipality’s 300 year history, looks like today,” he wrote in a September memo to City Council. “We must take ownership and break down the barriers to change.”

Some of Batista’s planned actions include creating a blueprint to ensure hiring decisions are equitable and establishing a data-collection process that will allow the city to track its progress in diversifying its staff. As part of an effort to better retain staff and fill open positions, the city will also make parking free for employees who work in downtown offices, in addition to ending the drug test requirements.

“Marijuana is legal, and the [tests have been] an unnecessary barrier,” Medina said. “Last summer, we had these summer jobs and a lot of the youth in the community were hoping to get these jobs. And the drug test was something that kind of stymied their opportunities.”

Still, Medina said she wants to know more about the hiring process for the new chief diversity officer, stressing that it should involve a nationwide search with input from many different community members. The city's promise to be equitable, she said, should also extend to everyday city policies and funding decisions.

Medina noted that Worcester city leaders have made announcements in the past about combatting structural racism but little progress has come out of it.

“This is going to be bigger than just a bunch of promises,” she said. “We need to really dismantle the patriarchy that exists and bring in new people so that the table can change and so that we can start thinking differently.”