As lawmakers call for investigation of reported racism at VA, workers plan protests

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Two Capitol Hill lawmakers are calling for a review of reports of systemic racism against Department of Veterans Affairs employees and veterans, as VA workers plan protests this weekend. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate "the culture, policies and practices" of VA "to determine the extent to which systemic racism impacts the VA, including whether VA employees and veterans in the benefits offices, medical centers and other facilities ... experience racial discrimination in the workplace." 

The senators' request for a review of VA follows the release of a national survey on reported racism at the department from the union representing hundreds of thousands of VA staff, the American Federation of Government Employees. That survey found that nearly 80% of VA workers who responded believe racism is a serious, pervasive problem at the department. The survey, which included responses from about 1,500 VA workers, showed that 76% said they experienced racism on the job and 55% said they witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while at work. 

Nearly 80% of Veterans Affairs staff say racism is a 'moderate to serious problem' at VA

"Reports that racism is a serious problem at VA are especially concerning and demand rigorous scrutiny as our country works to confront systemic racism across our institutions," the senators wrote to GAO. "Racism and racial discrimination at VA must be taken seriously, and the steps to address it must be robust and enduring."

On a press call, current and former VA employees shared experiences with racism at the department, including derogatory language, stereotyping, racial slurs and retaliation against staffers of color., 

In one incident, employees at the Kansas City VA Medical Center reported that black staff were instructed to act as a "living display" of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Floyd in an event recognizing Juneteenth. 

Workers have filed complaints with VA, Congress and civil rights organizations. 

While VA has a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and a Center for Minority Veterans, the senators said the survey and recent reports of racism and discrimination "suggest that these concerns are not being adequately addressed by the department." The last quarterly report released by the Center for Minority Veterans used 2014 data. 

This Labor Day weekend, VA union members are planning socially distanced nationwide protests "demanding COVID-19 protections and racial justice," according to union officials. 

Workers plan to protest a lack of pandemic hazard pay, "continuing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE)," systemic racism at the department, "union busting," and what they call VA's "refusal" to cooperate in contract negotiations. 

Planned protests will be held in several cities including Hampton, Virginia; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; Las Vegas; Tampa, Florida; Little Rock, Arkansas; Leavenworth, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Riverside, California. 

“I describe it as a mold – in the dark, secret. It’s quiet, but it’s affecting people of color throughout the VA,” Marcellus Shields, former VA employee in Wilmington, Delaware and president of the local AFGE chapter, said in a press call last month. “This is unacceptable. This is something that needs to be pulled out from the root.”

When the results of the union's survey were released in August, VA pushed back against the allegations of racism and the survey's results. VA did so again on Thursday, calling the AFGE union "one of the least credible authorities in this country regarding harassment, abuse and unfair treatment," citing allegations of sexual abuse and harassment levied against J. David Cox, former president of the union. Cox was forced to resign earlier this year and union members filed a lawsuit in June accusing the current president, Everett Kelley, and other union leaders of protecting Cox. 

"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said. "If AFGE’s stance against discrimination and harassment was as strong as VA’s, perhaps union leaders wouldn’t be subject to a lawsuit accusing them of 'fostering a culture that turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment.'"

Noel said that any VA employee who encounters discrimination or harassment is asked to call their Equal Employment Opportunity Manager, Employee Threat Assessment Team or VA's Office of resolution management at 1-888-566-3982.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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