Nearly 80% of Department of Veterans Affairs employees believe racism is a serious, pervasive problem at the nation's second-largest federal agency, and more than half report witnessing racial discrimination against veterans while at work, according to a new union survey.
The nationwide survey released Friday showed 78% of VA staff who responded reported that racism is a "moderate" to "serious" problem at the department, according to the data collected by the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE is one of the largest unions representing federal employees, including hundreds of thousands of VA staff.
The survey results included responses from about 1,500 VA workers and showed that 76% of employees who responded said they "experienced racially charged actions" while working at the department and 55% said they witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while at work.
About 12% of white VA employees are in leadership positions. Fewer than 4% of Black VA staff are in positions of leadership.
Navy veteran Charmayne Brown, a Kansas City VA Medical Center worker, said on a press call Friday that she faced racial slurs, sexually harassing language and more from higher-level staff at VA and faced retaliation when she spoke up.
Brown said she first faced discrimination and experienced racism at the Kansas City VA in 2003, and retaliation for speaking out about it eventually led her to retire last year. She said she was called "Aunt Jemima," among other disparaging names and said she saw other VA staff discriminating against veteran patients.
"I retired because I was tired of suffering these injustices every day," she said.
Brown said she's filed 18 complaints against the Kansas City VA. She's one of about 50 VA workers demanding action from VA leaders and asking for a Congressional hearing, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP. Brown's daughter still works at the Kansas City VA hospital, and since Brown began speaking out, she said her daughter has faced retaliation.
"I'm more determined now than ever before," she said. "This nonsense has to stop. I endured it all my life. I watched my grandmother go through it. Now I have grandchildren old enough to enter the workforce. I'm not going to stand by and watch them endure it.
"Enough is enough."
At an event recognizing Juneteenth, Black employees were instructed to act as a "living display" of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and George Floyd, according to internal emails and VA staff. Those VA workers spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation from the department. Those VA employees also told Connecting Vets about racial slurs used by white VA staff and other issues.
After the event, VA staff filed more than 100 complaints with the local chapter of the NAACP.
Kansas City was only one example, according to VA staff. They shared stories of Black nurses being called "girl" in New York, disproportionate discipline and retaliation against Black staff in Milwaukee, plots to fire Black employees in Poplar Bluff, Missouri and more.
They said they asked for a VA Inspector General examination of their workplaces, but it never came. Now they're appealing to VA senior leaders and Congress.
VA pushed back on the allegations and survey results, 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.'"
Union leaders are specifically asking that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie acknowledge that "racism and discrimination is widespread" at VA, withdraw a plan to ban staff representation in EEO interviews, affirm that all VA workplaces must be free of "bigotry, harassment and retaliation" and ensure those rights are upheld, and meet with AFGE leaders to discuss the "next steps in combating racism at the VA."
“I describe it as a mold – in the dark, secret. It’s quiet, but it’s affecting people of color throughout the VA,” said Marcellus Shields, former VA employee in Wilmington, Delaware and president of the local AFGE chapter. “This is unacceptable. This is something that needs to be pulled out from the root.”