01 Sep Is their Endemic Racism Within The VA? Nearly 80% Of The VA Employees Think So
According to almost 80 percent of The Veterans Affairs employees surveyed by their workers union in July, endemic racism within the federal government’s second-largest organization is a “moderate or serious problem”, with more than half reporting they have witnessed discrimination against the veterans whom the agency serves.
The independent nationwide survey of approximately 1,500 VA staff members who are union members was conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees. Its findings were disclosed to The Washington Post in advance of a planned public release Friday.
“VA leadership has to work with us and with their employees to change that culture and cultivate an environment where employees feel confident that when they report acts of racism and other types of discrimination, their claim will be taken seriously, prompt action will be taken to address the issue, and they will not be punished for speaking out,” Everett Kelley, the union’s president, said in a statement. He added that VA employees have faced retaliation for raising complaints.
Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, criticized the workers union in response, calling its survey a “desperate attempt” to distract from a lawsuit alleging sexual assault and harassment by its former president J. David Cox Sr., who resigned in February. He has denied the allegations.
“VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form,” Noel said in a statement, adding that VA has risen past other federal agencies in “best places to work” surveys. In 2019, the agency substantiated 70 claims of equal opportunity violations, she said, noting VA’s workforce includes about 400,000 employees.
While the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has incited a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice and overt racism, VA workers who were surveyed said that such issues have run deep within their workplace since long before Floyd’s death in May.
At the Kansas City VA Medical Center in Missouri, Black employees have held occasional protests over alleged discrimination, with more than 100 complaints filed to the local NAACP chapter as of June.
At a Juneteenth event, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, Black employees became “living display” pieces, performing as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Floyd, according to two medical center staffers and internal emails that were first obtained and reported on by the Washington Post.
One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity over a fear of retaliation, told The Post they were urged by senior leaders at the medical center to dress as their characters in period clothing and that one supervisor, who is White, suggested in a conference call that they serve watermelon and fried chicken during the event. The supervisor later apologized, the staffer said.
Theresa DiMaggio, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City medical center, denied the employees’ claims and described the event as “voluntary.”
Other staffers at the facility said a nurse, who is White, used the n-word in a public outburst overheard by multiple VA workers, and that another employee who is White, used the n-word on a conference call after he mistakenly believed his phone was on mute.
DiMaggio said the nurse resigned during an investigation into the incident. The other employee no longer works at VA, DiMaggio said, but she declined to confirm the incident occurred.
Minority staffers at other VA facilities also spoke of being insulted by colleagues and patients, and facing barriers to promotion that they felt were tied to race. About 12.3 percent of White VA workers hold senior leadership roles, compared with 3.8 percent of Black workers, according to 2018 government data, the most recent figures publicly available.
President of AFGE local 1988 and also a licensed practical nurse at the St. Albans Community Living Center in New York City, Geddes Scott, says that Black veterans who reside at the facility have been cast out for behavior that can go overlooked for White veterans.
“The excusing of physical aggression from a White man is more tolerable than that of a Black man,” he said. He declined to provide specifics, citing a concern of retaliation from management.
Michael Drake, a VA medical system spokesperson in New York, said that the system is proud of its diverse workforce and that it does not tolerate discrimination. A third of senior leadership positions there are held by minorities, he said.
Nuwanna Franklin, an Army veteran and vice president of the AFGE union local 1985, which represents the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Ga., said minority staffers, including her, have been retaliated against for raising complaints.
She said a dearth of Black leaders there is a significant concern. A regional VA spokesperson said that the facility does not tolerate discrimination and that two of the five senior officials there are Black, along with 55 percent of the workforce.
Franklin countered that many are relegated to lower-paying jobs.
“The higher it goes,” Franklin said, “the whiter it goes.”
Multiple VA staffers said Black veterans screened for mental health issues are diagnosed with service-connected post traumatic stress at smaller rates than Whites, a trend substantiated previously by medical researchers.